Country houses for sale

Property in the country still soaring as London lags behind, but are cities fighting back?

The big story in the property markets over the past year has been the shift from city to country. Will it be permanent? Some say yes, others disagree — and there are signs that cities are changing in response to the desire for green space.

Of all the changes wrought in the world since the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year, the shift in the property market has been one of the most marked. The escape to the country — or the ‘race for space’ — has altered how and where we live and work, and that has shifted the property market.

‘Without a doubt one of the key trends since the start of the pandemic has been the rise in the number of households looking for more space, and a significant part of that trend has been the rise of the number of households leaving cities,’ said Lesley Cairns of Hamptons at their recent Town to Country roadshow,

The raw facts bear this out. HM Land Registry figures — the most accurate we have, albeit among the latest to arrive — showed last week that London has the slowest annual rate of house price rises  in the country, at 3.3% compared to the national average of 8.9%. More recent figures even suggest a price dip, and a slowdown in the pace of sales in the capital.

Not everybody sees things this way, however. ‘The escape to the country phenomenon, which has clearly taken place, has not come at the expense of London,’ Stuart Bailey of Knight Frank told The Guardian, while the Berkeley Group’s chief executive Rob Perrins is skeptical of the idea that people are leaving cities for good: ‘We firmly believe that this does not represent a permanent structural shift that has the capacity to reverse urbanisation,’ he said

Such crystal ball gazing is mostly of interest to speculators and investors, of course; those simply looking for a home for themselves and their families are probably best off not letting the future prices tail wag the dog. Equally, though, we’re at a point in history where you no longer need to let the work tail wag the lifestyle dog; millions of us are able to be more flexible in how we live, and that can only be a good thing.

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Tower Bridge in London on a sunny morning.

On top of that, it seems that cities are now finding ways to respond to the need for green space and outdoor lifestyle. Walking and gardening were numbers one and three on the list of new hobbies people discovered in the pandemic, according to Google Trends data. And while baking, which  was in at number two, seems to have settled back down, the walking and gardening trends seem to be here to stay.

Dr Lauren Andres, associate professor of Urban Planning at University College London, believes that ‘Covid-fuelled urban trends are likely to dramatically alter the shape of UK cities’. Dr Andres predicts that street parties and ‘pocket parks’ (small parks squeezed in to spare pieces of otherwise-unused land) will become more and more common. She also suggests, in research that’s part of a, that disused urban spaces could become co-working areas, food halls and farmer’s markets  — as is happening with one old shopping centre in the centre of Worcester.

Her research is part of a Google campaign called ‘Behind the Lens with Google Pixel’, and technology is part of how these changes will happen, as people can use their phones and other devices to share ideas and spread the word. Google’s campaign is showing how this can work: TV gardeners The Rich Brothers have fronted an online urban gardening in Bristol, using Google Lens to help identify plants; chef Andi Oliver has run a similar event for foodies in Liverpool; and First Dates’ Fred Sireix has hosted a walking tour of London, showing his favourite views and routes.

Such schemes suggest that there is plenty of life in cities, and that they’re changing to meet new needs. ‘Cities have always been unique hubs that offer a high concentration of activities and possibilities for getting together,’ says Dr Andres.

‘They are diverse and dynamic places for culture, leisure and entertainment, thriving through their different rhythms. Cities, and particularly city-centres and high streets, were put on stand-by during lockdown, which triggered a significant transformation in how spaces like streets and parks were being used. Some of those changes will be temporary, others more permanent.’