Ealing was first dubbed “queen of the suburbs” by its then borough surveyor Charles Jones in a book published in 1902. He was describing a very different Ealing, of course, one of the three now defunct metropolitan boroughs that were combined to form the Ealing borough of today (the other two were Southall and Acton). Even so, the nickname has stuck and is still acknowledged in the Labour-run borough’s coat of arms. Has the time come to leave nickname behind?
At a recent virtual meeting about Ealing’s local development plan, Peter Mason, cabinet member for housing and planning (and contributor to this website) asked: “Do we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about the London Borough of Ealing as the ‘queen of the suburbs’? Should our vision be to be the best suburb in London, or should it be focussed more clearly on local growth, local jobs and appropriate housing [with a view to being a place] that can retain wealth in the borough rather than leaking it off to the East End or even into the Central Activity Zone”?
Mason directed the question in particular at a participant from of the residents’ alliance Ealing Matters. “I think it’s backward-looking and evokes misty-eyed things we would be better to turn our back on and look forward,” came the reply, albeit along with some large reservations about some of the built environment changes underway. Mason later, rather teasingly, floated on Twitter the idea of “scrapping” the moniker. Conservative councillor Gregory Stafford, who is also his party’s candidate for the (Labour held) Ealing & Hillingdon London Assembly seat, took exception. “What a disappointment,” he wrote. “Ealing has been called the Queen of the Suburbs for over 100 years. I know it’s only symbolic but it [Mason’s question] does sum up Ealing Labour’s view that our heritage is an inconvenience rather than something to be celebrated”.
Stafford tagged a campaign called Save Ealing Centre, another alliance of residence associations and community groups which is opposed to consented plans to redevelop part of the Broadway shopping centre (“ripping the heart out” of it, they say) and others. But Mason has continued to raise the question, choosing his language with care. “Is Ealing a dormitory suburb borough of London or a destination of seven towns, culture and heritage?” he inquired yesterday.
This followed another, more recent, virtual meeting at which Mason explained what lay behind his question. “What Covid has done has really shaken the model of a city like London where all the big employers and employment activity ends up being sent to the Central Activities Zone.” The flight from public transport has seen a change in local habits, he observed. “Our residents have been accessing our local parades, our local high streets and our communities in a different way than before. Partly that speaks to a vision of what we want to achieve as a borough…We’ve got our own industries, we’ve got strong identities in our seven towns, we’ve got high streets that we want to reinforce, we’ve got culture that we want to expand and highlight.”
The issues Mason has opened up and the responses to them are not, of course, unique to Ealing. And he is far from alone in recognising that the virus could have profound implications for the suburbs if anxiety about infection coupled with an increase in home working creates new demands for homes and amenities in less crowded suburban areas. Such trends could intensify development tensions – already apparent in Ealing over tall buildings and heritage, as they are in Barnet, Croydon and elsewhere – but also create possibilities for adding to Ealing’s strengths and attractions.
How these possible new factors in the development equation affect the evolution of the outer boroughs will depend on many things, including the future behaviour of the virus and Londoners’ attitudes to its dangers. Maybe, in the end, nothing much will really change. But the efforts of the city’s more thoughtful politicians to get to grips with Covid’s possible long-term implications are becoming more and more diverting.
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