Country houses for sale

‘Cities have lost their crippling hold on the workforce’: How the race for space has changed Britain

Has the past year seen families fleeing the cities or is it more complex than that, asks James Fisher.

It has been an unusual past 12 months, to say the least, and one that has made us sit up and take notice of our habits, choices and ideals in more ways than one. Many of us have seen a lot more of the inside of our homes than we ever wished we would and with that circumstance came a realisation that many of the constraints that held us to a particular place or area were not quite as concrete as we would have originally thought.

London, and various other major cities across the country (and perhaps, even, the world?) have lost their crippling gravity on the workforce, as more and more of us realise that the shoeboxes we cram ourselves into for the sake of convenience for getting to and from the office aren’t actually all that necessary or convenient.

After a complete shutdown during the first lockdown last March, agents gradually opened up and fears about a potential disaster for the market were quickly quashed as ‘pent-up demand’ flooded the market and deals that had been put on hold rapidly completed.

There were whispers that the post-lockdown surge in deals would be something of a mini-bubble, but the deals kept coming, and the prediction (from this magazine, among others), that access to space and Nature was the new ‘convenient commute’ seemed to be holding true. Indeed, according to Chris Druce, senior research analyst at Knight Frank, ‘the number of Offers Accepted from people moving from urban to rural locations, based on ONS classification, increased from 9% in March to 21% in December 2020.’

In a more recent sentiment survey conducted by Knight Frank, it was found that of some 500 clients polled, 38% of them said that the most recent lockdown has made it more likely that they will move to the countryside. ‘So far we’ve experienced that once the restrictions of lockdowns are lifted, demand immediately increases from city dwellers looking to make their move to the country,’ comments Ed Rook, head of Knight Frank’s country department.

‘We’re already seeing the early signs that this will be the case again after the third lockdown — with schools going back, better weather and the announcement of the continued stamp duty holiday, enquiries are coming through thick and fast and we expect this to continue once the lockdown has been lifted.’

‘All my mates are living out of London now,’ says Charlie Mitchell, who runs the Tooting office of agents Winkworth and has also made the move out to the countryside this past year.

‘I’ve got about six or seven friends who have come back to Suffolk, who wouldn’t have done it one year ago. It’s the same with my Tooting market, we have people moving to Yorkshire, Wales and Cornwall. It’s extraordinary,’ he adds.

‘It’s really changed people’s way of living. It would be a bitter pill to swallow to sell a flat or house for less than you bought it for, but, in Tooting, people were buying in 2015 in a hot market, and now they don’t seem to care that they’re not selling their house for a mark up. They’re purely doing it for lifestyle now.’

However, Mr Mitchell has praised how resilient the market in south-west London has been. ‘When we came back to work in May, I was moving out of London, my friends were moving out, and I wondered “where are the buyers”. But when someone moved out, someone moved in straight away.’ Mr Mitchell added that he wasn’t sure how long the trend for buying in the countryside would last and admits that he will miss things such as Deliveroo and Uber, but adds that ‘it’s the first time in my career that I have a balance of work and life. As an agent you work long and antisocial hours. You’re still on the end of the phone, but I’m surrounded by beautiful countryside and with a family it’s just wonderful’.

‘I love Crouch End, it’s the only place I’ve owned a property and it’s wonderful,’ says Fiona Graham, who is selling her flat through Hamptons and moving to Leicestershire with her husband. ‘I never thought I would consider leaving, but we realised we can function really well from this part of the country.’

Speaking on the phone, it was easy to tell exactly how much living in London means to Mrs Graham, as she espouses all the qualities of Crouch End and city living. However, she is equally as effusive on the benefits of north Leicestershire: ‘We did want more space and we’ll get a lot more for our money, but more than that, I’d like to spend the next few decades in Nature. We’ll have more office space to run our company, and I’ll be going back to my roots, as I grew up here.’

The Regent’s Canal next to Victoria Park, Hackney, with house, boats and trees reflected on the water.

However, what London lacks in green space, it does make up for in convenience. Both Mrs Graham and Mr Mitchell were keen to point out that, for younger people, it’s unlikely that the promise of acres of grass would be enough for millennials to give up the many social benefits of the city.

‘I think a lot of young Londoners will be shocked by the difference,’ says Mrs Graham. ‘There’s no on-tap excitement with bars and clubs, no easy physical access. They won’t be able to go out “on the pull” in the same way!’ Both admit that, pre-pandemic, plans were afoot to leave the city anyway and the past year has merely sped up those plans.

A lot has been said about ‘the race for space’ in the past year, but perhaps the issue isn’t as binary as town versus country. With news that the stamp-duty holiday has been extended until June, as well as a new initiative to guarantee loan to value mortgages of up to 95%, the Government is investing a lot in policies that will benefit younger first-time buyers, who might be looking to invest in property in cities where their friends live.

What has perhaps happened is that the market has become more fluid, and that barriers that were preventing people moving up and across the ladder have been breached by home working and Zoom. Perhaps, the past year has taught us that, property-wise, it’s easier to be where we want to be than we always thought.