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For The Truth About British Society, Follow The (Housing) Money

November 8, 2010

The Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter, Rowan Williams and Boris Johnson all seem to agree; whether social housing can continue meaningfully to exist in the wealthier parts of the UK – mostly London – is doubtful, following the autumn 2010 spending review. Quite rightly, we currently focus on people in social housing, at risk of homelessness and most vulnerable. But the other issue is who owns what housing, where; and why.

How many people from southern England travel to work for a while in the north, but still own property in the south?

Investments speak much louder than words, so this surely tells us much about where the real money and opportunities are to be found?

The Observer has just run an article (Joanne O’Connell, 7 November 2010: Is it worth moving to the north?) in which the benefits of moving from the south to the north of England are examined… cheaper and bigger houses etc…

These benefits are often extolled by professionals who come Oop North in pursuit of their glittering careers: a chance, they say, to get their teeth into some real issues, see things differently, let their children grow up away from the Big City, and so forth.

I would have no problem with this, if it were as simple for ambitious and enthusiastic northern professionals to get a spot of similarly challenging experience Down South. But the reasons this doesn’t happen much, at least once people have family commitments, are well rehearsed.

What is less often recognised than the acknowledged problems of moving south is perhaps even more significant, if we are looking for the facts about the supposed north-south divide.

There is I suspect a tendency, amongst those professionals coming north, to keep their house-in-the-south and to rent or buy an additional home in the north. They know, though it is rarely admitted, that there’s often no turning back, if their assets in the south are sold in favour of northern delights. Their southern property is, as one such pro freely admitted to me recently, their pension.

Stability and equity in the market
This is not, then, about the weather (it really is worse in the north), or about cultural divides; it’s about sustainability, equity and the longer-term health of the UK economy.

So is this ‘keep the property in the south for the pension, and rent (or further invest) in the north as a stop-gap’ significant, the wider scheme of things? I truly don’t know – I have no idea of the dimension of the phenomenon, in the context of the housing market overall.

But I do know two other things. Firstly, as someone in Joanne O’Connell’s piece says: ‘It’s great [to relocate fully] if you plan to stay in the north, but not if you want to re-buy in London in a few years.

Indicators of the reality
And secondly, those rented executive apartments for professionals coming Up North for a while tells us much about the reality of the distribution of the market – the value of real estate is a better indicator of socio-economic opportunity and how the money is moving, than aspirational talk of the Big Society.

When someone starts to talk the talk of ‘small government’, ‘voluntarism’ and the like, maybe we should follow the money and ask where, in financial investment terms, they live.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ at all with owning a decent property in the south; but there’s plenty wrong with being trapped (or henceforth shipped?) up north because you don’t.

A version of this article was first published on the New Start Blog of 8 November 2010.

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