Historic Suburbs

This page sets out Historic England's advice to support local councils who are planning and managing change to suburbs in their area. 

Historic suburbs

More than 8 out of 10 people in England live in suburbs.  Although not all are conservation areas, many suburbs have a distinctive character and well-established landscapes. 

They are however coming under increasing pressure through "garden grabbing" - building on gardens and other open spaces - and the replacement of houses with blocks of flats.

Historic England believes that the most successful approach to managing these kinds of changes, while protecting the things which makes our suburbs so popular, is based on careful planning and sound understanding of their local character.

Our advice

Historic England’s main role is to offer general advice rather than commenting on individual cases.  It can be summed up in a number of principles:

  • Change is inevitable but often positive and, in many historic suburbs, necessary to ensure their continued success.  A small minority of very sensitive areas, such as the early garden cities and suburbs, may be protected as conservation areas or listed buildings, and acceptable change will need to be more closely controlled.
  • Good understanding of local character will lead to good quality changes.  The diversity of our suburbs means that a uniform approach to tackling problems will not necessarily work as well in all places.
  • A long-term strategy for the future of a historic suburb can ensure that it retains what is special and what is valued by the local community.
  • The relationship between elements of the suburban landscape is crucial.  Public parks, open spaces, street trees, private gardens and views in and out of particular areas, all play a role in creating local identity and influence how neighbourhoods are perceived. 

What practical steps can a local authority take?

Understand what is there.  Analysis of suburbs, for instance by Rapid Area Assessments, can support local authorities in making better and more sustainable decisions.  These flexible tools can be applied at different levels of detail and can be used quickly and with minimal expense and staff time. More information is included in our advice on historic area assessments.

Develop a comprehensive vision for local suburbs which understands their historic character, involves the local community, and looks at change in the long term.  It can identify pressures and opportunities, to make sure that change is carefully managed. 

Early communication with residents’ associations, tenants’ groups, amenity and local history societies will help build up a picture of what it is about an area that the community regards as important and wants to protect.

Use planning controls carefully where a historic suburb is of significant historic or architectural interest.  Making it a conservation area will help ensure that new development or alterations respect and respond to their surroundings. 

Article 4 directions, which limit what householders can do to their properties, may also be necessary in sensitive areas.  A Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) can be used to give guidance on what works can and cannot be done.

Consider public and private open spaces, which in many suburbs make up an important part of local character and influence how the area is thought of.  There is often a carefully composed relationship between the private and public realms, where even relatively minor changes can have a big impact. 

Carefully consider the impact of traffic and parking on historic character.  More on-street and front-garden parking, and demand for higher capacity road layouts will affect the appearance of the street, the character of individual properties and views through the area.  Historic England advice on managing highways and the public realm is set out in our Streets for All manuals.

Consider commercial, retail and other facilities within the suburb, which may be supporting how well it works as a place to live, and may need protecting or extending to guarantee its continued success.

Background - what do we mean by suburb?

Suburbs have grown up on the outskirts of our towns and cities. They have a clear relationship with the main settlement but have their own distinct character. As towns and cities have grown over the centuries, older suburbs have been absorbed into what is now seen as the centre, and new suburbs grown up beyond them.  They can therefore have a complex and layered structure.

Suburbs are usually residential, and many have been popular and adaptable places to live for many years. They may contain buildings or layouts of high architectural value and attractive landscapes.

Many provide good facilities for living and are highly valued by their residents.  Some have historical value through association with an original developer, architect or movement.

See The Heritage of Historic Suburbs