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Finding utopia in London's suburbs?

Monkhams Estate
The Monkhams estate in the east London borough of Redbridge

By Boc Ly
BBC London

'There can be few residences for the city man which combine in so remarkable degree the advantages of Town and Country.'

This was the sales patter for a new estate being built in east London during the 1930s.

The suburbs were being hailed as a new and wonderful way of living where you could combine the best of city and rural life.

Is that still the case today?

How have the suburbs fared in the last 100 years amidst London's relentless development?

A new report by Save Britain's Heritage (SAVE) called "Rediscovered Utopias: Saving London's Suburbs" seeks to answer these questions.

Monkhams Estate
In the 18th and early 19th century, places that we would now consider inner London, like Hackney or Hampstead, were the suburbs.

Today, suburbs are the areas that were developed towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, especially during the inter-war period when the railway system enabled people to live further out and to commute.

Suburbs tend to be on the edge of a large city, are mainly residential and with little industry. They often have parades of shops, a church and schools.

The suburban development of London continued apace until the establishment of the green belts in the 1940s.

Mostly thriving

Ann Robey is an architectural historian and heritage consultant who helped to edit the report.

"There were two views of the suburbs," she says.

"A suburb was a place that you could better yourself. That was the view expounded by the railway companies building out into the suburbs. It was a place where people could afford to buy their own homes and escape the inner cities.

"But there was also the sneering view by upper class people that a suburb was something downmarket and if you were anybody you either lived in the city or in the country."

"Today, most suburbs are thriving but there are problems," says Ann before taking BBC London on a short guided tour through the Monkhams Estate in Woodford, one of the suburbs featured in the report.

"We highlight places where people and local authorities need to be vigilant and we also talk about whether some suburbs ought to be part of conservation areas so they can have special powers that can prevent alterations being carried out."

Education and commercialism

The popularity of TV property makeover shows, says Ann, is making more people aware that any changes to their home should be done sensitively and in keeping with the original features.

Another threat to the character of some suburbs is the sub-division of large houses into flats and large gardens that are divided into smaller plots.

Suburbs also change because people's habits change. Many were built when cars were still a rarity and very few had garages. As a result, over the years, gardens have been paved over to create a driveway.

Similarly, the way we shop has had an effect on our suburbs. Local independent shops are struggling to survive against the mighty supermarkets. If they're forced to close and are boarded up they make the suburb look rundown.

Monkhams Estate
Originally this estate was a country house belonging to an industrialist called Arnold Hills, who was the founder of West Ham United.

His finances deteriorated and in 1901 Hills was forced to sell his estate. The estate was bought by developers and houses were built and marketed at the middle and upper classes.

Monkhams has curving roads to reflect the estate's rural origins and when it was first built the houses were given names rather than numbers.

Former Prime Minister Clement Atlee lived on Monkhams estate and the house today has a blue plaque.

Monkhams Estate

However, walking through the Monkhams estate, Ann Robey is keen to stress that it is not all doom and gloom, far from it.

A case in point is the parade of shops outside Woodford Tube station. Many of the exteriors have retained their original features and the businesses are benefiting from the heavy footfall going to and from the station.

On the residential streets comprised of large detached and semi-detached houses, Ann points out good and bad examples of alterations that have been made to specific properties.

To the uneducated eye, such a detailed critique is perhaps a little harsh. After all, some of these houses would sell for more than a million pounds.

Nonetheless this SAVE report is concerned with architectural integrity, and while these houses belong to a particular individual or family, the heritage of the suburbs also need to be protected for future generations.

"There is pressure for extensions, the garden-grabbing, and all these things that we flag up in the report," concludes Ann.

"But the overall emphasis is to celebrate the suburbs of London, to see that there are lots of them and many of them are very pleasant places to live."

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