The electric plug, the fire hydrant, and the suburb: these are things Britain does well. Our suburbs in particular are a middle way between the tract-housing sprawl of the US and the continent’s jumble of breeze-block mega-schemes and gated compounds.
Suburbia, however, has found a far greater cheerleader than me: Pret a Manger.
Despite a difficult pandemic for office worker-reliant coffee shops, Pret has announced ambitious plans to establish over 200 new UK and Irish stores in the next two years. The focus of this expansion will be suburbs, regional cities, and travel hubs. Co-working start-up Patch has announced similar plans to establish shared offices in the high streets of suburbs and small towns.
These businesses are literally following their customers. As the need to work in the office has diminished, so too has the appeal of city centres. As the need for a pleasant and spacious home to work in has grown, so too has the appeal of suburbs and small towns. The result is that house prices are growing faster in cities’ suburbs than in their centres. With the UK government mulling plans to strengthen employees’ ability to work at home, this trend could continue in a post-Covid world.
This is more than a market trend. Even pre-Covid, trendy newcomers were enlivening the character of suburbs like Bristol’s Montpelier and Manchester’s Chorlton. Covid is accelerating the trend. On the other hand, take a London suburb like Queensbury. Transformed by international migration in the late-20th century, it could yet revert to Pooterish type.
Here’s where Pret comes back in. Is the outward march of ubiquitous high street brands a negative change to our suburbs? I’d argue not.
Home working has ensured that the decline in suburban retail has been less pronounced than for city centres. If big chains spreading out their stalls reverses the decline of many suburban or small-town high streets, all the better.
If more home workers mean more people around to boost the commercial and civic life of an area, all the better too. Covid could be making the suburban life more communal and characterful than the often-alienating experience of city living. Pret’s move, just like house prices, shows the growing appeal of such a lifestyle.
Britain’s suburbs could be rediscovering something of their character and civic life. Pret may just be the beginning.