City living’s misgivings

Urban living has numerous advantages, but with family issues such as schooling, the rural idyll seems attractive. Or does it? Hugh Pearman weighs up the options.

The schools around my bit of north London are shrinking. There are three reasons. The first is that the schools – at secondary level – are very bad. The second, not unconnected with the first, is the equally familiar one of parents leaving the inner city for what they fondly and mistakenly imagine is a Utopian rural idyll. The third is less obvious.

Mine is an Irish area. Also Cypriot, Caribbean, Nigerian, Mauritian, Chinese and a dozen other ethnic groupings including my own. But the Irish have always gravitated in big numbers to this cheap corner of town as a base to find work in the capital. And now they are starting to drift back home. The Irish Republic has an economic boom going that makes anything happening in the UK seem pathetic. They’ll return some day, but in the meantime we have a problem in London N4. Not enough families. Bad news for the city mix.

Because of the arcane formulae that dictate these things, fewer children translate into larger classes. Teachers are sacked, their pupils are thrown in with someone else’s. The schools duly get worse, so more parents leave, and so it goes on. Those who are obliged by their work to remain, sometimes resort to desperate strategies.

As relatively wealthy middle-class parents, whose children happen all to be at (pre-secondary) state schools, we find our postman cleaning windows in the afternoons – so as to scrape together the money to pay for his daughter’s private education. This sort of thing makes us moody.

Those of us who champion urban living – and grasp at straws that support our case, such as the fact that office blocks are being converted into flats all over – would like to believe that cities can work for everyone, not just “This Life” types and the underclass that so frequently helps itself to our possessions. We don’t like to think that cities might possibly have sunk to a level where families are forced into the endless rurbania that lies out beyond the M25 or its equivalents elsewhere. And then we hit the schools problem, and the temptation is to give in.

I confess that a year ago I too was thinking of quitting the city. So many friends had already done so that our urban support network was in danger of collapse. Self-employment and my little modem card meant I could theoretically live and work anywhere. Surreptitiously I began to get on trains to country towns, pick up estate agents’ leaflets, casually check schools’ league tables.

We went to see our newly countrified chums on nice weekends. After a while they stopped saying what heaven it was, and started talking instead about how they needed two cars to get anywhere, and how miserable it was in the winter. People with grown-up children mentioned the parents’ nightmare of dealing with sulky teenagers in the country. A much-publicised medical report said that country folk were, on the whole, less healthy than their city counterparts. And about this time I noticed that, back in London, I was hardly using my car any more.

Even now, after years of decline, public transport in London is wonderful. But a lot of the time I don’t even need that – I bike to my office on the same machine I bought for my first central London job in 1982. The Tesco Metro is round the corner and has no car park anyway. Four airports are, in time terms, equidistant from where I sit, using either a Tube or a train.

In a few years, just to make things even easier, St Pancras will start running express trains one way to Heathrow and the other way under the sea to Paris. This is colossal infrastructure investment, and it feels like it is just for me. Soon, cars in cities are likely to be taxed and curbed like mad. Out in unregulated rurbania, however, it will be nose-to-tail all the way to the hypermarket.

Without discussing the issue, we both quietly stopped looking to the countryside. By unspoken mutual consent, the city gets the vote. Any big city would probably do, but London is where we are and our tatty but well-connected bit of it seems to work. We wait with interest to see who will replace the vanished Irish. We’ve become fatalistic about the schools. We send the older children out on buses and they seem to return unharmed. We still fret a bit about the pollution, but that may be on the wane.

And if you’re wondering what the hell all this has to do with design – what was the title of that Noel Coward play?

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