Betjeman’s old rural Middlesex was destroyed by two kinds of pressure, for places to live and places to trade and work. The first sort involved loving it to death: so many people wanted to enjoy the suburban ideal that in time there was no ideal left to enjoy. The second valued the fields around London as a place for development simply because they were conveniently close, creating places like Park Royal or the most extreme example, Heathrow Airport itself. In this century fresh development is targeted at places that have lost all their old charms. The Greater London Authority’s London Plan identifies 43 ‘opportunity areas and intensification areas’; half of which are in outer London and nine of these are in old rural Middlesex. At the same time existing green spaces are to be preserved and enhanced. Meanwhile an Outer London Commissionset up in 2009 wants to see Greater London become a cluster of local centres, rather than a huge dormitory serving the centre.
It seems an obvious idea to build new housing in the suburbs; that way more people have homes, and the suburbs start to feel more lively and bustling. The pioneer of these population transfers was the old London County Council (1889-1965) with its so called ‘out-county’ estates: almost two thirds of its new estates between the wars were built not on its own territory but that of neighbouring counties. The outer London authorities and their voters were not necessarily welcoming. The Golders Green Gazette commented in 1924 on a proposal by the LCC to buy land in Edgware to develop what would become its major north London housing scheme, the Watling Estate, built between 1926 and 1930 between the Edgware Road and the main St Pancras railway line. ‘As is inevitable in such cases, this will lead to a big slum development … Workmen from all sorts of localities, and attached to work in all sorts of directions, ie not by any means local workmen, will invade and pervade the whole district from Edgware to the Hyde and Hendon.’ The Watling Estate has survived to became admired for the neo-Georgian houses designed by the chief LCC architect George Topham Forrest.
A successor, the Chalkhill Estate, Wembley built 1966-74 on the site of one of the first developments by the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Company was an equally controversial piece of social engineering, but here the buildings haven’t survived. The ‘Bison-method’ prefab concrete blocks, which were a shortlived landmark seen from Metropolitan line trains arriving at Wembley Park, were demolished in the late 1990s and replaced with conventional terraces, though without greatly improving the estate’s reputation for law-abidingness. Attempts at creating urban bustle in old Middlesex have generally created places without either the closeness to nature achieved in idealistic settlements like Bedford Park or Hampstead Garden City or the sense of adventure experienced in genuinely old settled places such as the Barbican in the city of London. Instead there’s the experience in say Wembley High Road or Neasden that somewhere’s been spoiled and then discarded.