Let's be honest: Most London commuter towns are unbelievably dull

Stevenage, such as it is. Image: Traveler100/Wikimedia Commons.

The impressive thing about Lewis Hamilton is that he can drive so well with his foot in his mouth. Last December, an Instagram video in which he yelled at a nephew for his taste in Christmas presents (“Boys don’t wear princess dresses!”) caused a medium-sized social media uproar. This year, it’s Middle England he’s offended, by describing his home town of Stevenage as “the slums”. At this rate he’ll soon have alienated everyone, and have nothing except for his mind-blowing wealth for comfort.

Watching the video of his speech at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, it’s fairly obvious that Hamilton does not literally believe Hertfordshire is comparable to the favelas of Rio. “It was really a dream for us all as a family to do something to different,” he says. “For us to get out of the slums, we would say – it’s not the slums, but just come out from somewhere and do something.”

That to me sounds like a figure of speech: a jokey way of saying “the crap town I grew up in”. We’ve all done it, describing a perfectly decent flat as a shoebox, or a mildly boring home town as a shithole. It’s less a description of objective reality than a comment on its failure to match up to our dreams.

Most of us will never realise those dreams; Hamilton actually has, living the life in Monaco like a cross between James Bond and Scrooge McDuck. Perhaps that’s why the good people of Stevenage have bristled so at his betrayal. “The people of our town, many of whom admire and support him, felt very offended,” says council leader Sharon Taylor. One of those people, the para-badminton player Gobi Ranganathan, agreed, tweeting in reply: “It has a lot to offer if people just open their eyes.”

I’m sure it does, on the grounds that pretty much everywhere does, if you’re minded to look for it. Nearly 90,000 people live in Stevenage, and many of them paid a fair whack (average house price: £300,000) to be there. They can’t all have made a terrible mistake. I’m sure there are attractions to living in Stevenage, just as there are to St Albans or Sevenoaks or Southend-on-Sea.


But here’s the thing: a place can have plenty to offer and still be the sort of place any ambitious teenager would climb over their own grandmother to get away from. And for every one of those towns – whatever their history, or cosy pubs, or shopping centres with plenty of parking – the biggest attraction by far is something that’s not about the town itself at all. It’s the mainline to London.

There’s a ring of towns around the capital to which people move not so much because of what they have, as because of where they are: they’re dormitory suburbs, which happen to be separated from the capital by a few fields, rather than independent communities entire unto themselves. That’s all the more true of Stevenage which, as a New Town, literally only exists because in 1946 London needed a place to put more housing.

This symbiotic existence does all sorts of things to a town. It tends to mean there’s money there, as people with jobs in the capital move out in search of homes with gardens, bidding up house prices but bringing disposable income, too. But it also makes them a bit – I’m just going to come out and say it – dull. Property is expensive, but the market for any commercial venture is smaller than it looks, because anyone looking for an art gallery or a theatre or a good night out is within easy reach of things much bigger and better.

So it’s hard to take risks, in a way it wouldn’t be in a university town or further from London, or even in the capital itself. The result is identikit shopping centres, with the same chain restaurants and the same chain pubs and the same ghastly, cheesy night clubs. Growing up in the suburbs, you’re constantly aware that the good stuff is always happening just over the horizon. Those railway lines don’t just carry commuters to London: they drain towns of their life.

Of course, this falls under the heading of good problems to have: if you’re worried about suburban tedium, you’re not worrying about crippling poverty or what will happen when the town’s single major employer decides to shut up shop. And of course the great and the good of Stevenage would bristle when its most famous son publicly slagged it off. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time complaining about Romford, and I left as soon as I could, yet I still feel my hackles rise whenever anyone else joins in.

But I don’t for a moment believe that Hamilton was literally comparing his hometown to the rubbish tips of Mumbai. The teenagers of Stevenage today, I suspect, understand exactly what he meant.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.