We are currently house-hunting — please let me know if you have one going spare. We are looking for a home in the north-east of England in any constituency which was once solidly Labour and is now in the talons of a brutally right-wing Conservative MP — this is my wife’s stipulation and I find it fair enough. However, we do not want to live too near the poor people.
In truth we had been casually looking across a vast swath of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire for a good half-dozen or more years, but until now there had been little urgency to the business. We marvelled at the property market up there: houses, grossly overpriced, would remain on sale for quite literally years. That’s because if there is a housing shortage in the north, it is at the top end of the market and so any building which does not look like it is from the set of Byker Grove thinks it can command a hefty price.
Also, we want a house in the countryside. And while there is an awful lot of countryside between Berwick and Scarborough, there are not many houses in it. So while those houses that fit the bill are few and far between, they still are not worth what the owners think — or rather thought — they could get. To give you an example, we found a house which was very similar to the one we are now selling in Kent: same size and architecture but with a smaller garden. One of the selling points of our house is that it is only 37 minutes from London by a very fast train. The selling point of the northern house is that it was only 45 minutes from Middlesbrough by the village bus. It was twice the price of our place.
Very rarely, then, we’d find a house we quite fancied and would book a viewing — which gave us a chance to enjoy what the northerners had done to their homes. Are you familiar with northern bling? There was one house where on the wall in the ‘master bedroom’, behind the double bed, was a mural of Jesus Christ on the cross, holding two shopping bags marked ‘Gucci’. In another there was a giant plaster effigy of Elvis Presley in the downstairs khazi. On one occasion we were guided around the blinged-up master bedroom by the vendor, who stopped us and said: ‘Your wife will love this.’ He pressed a button on the wall and out from the floor in front of us rose a revolving glass and gold cabinet displaying his wife’s jewellery. Oh, and the northern penchant for tartan carpets. We worked out that in addition to the inflated house price, we would have to spend an average of £100,000 simply to de-bling our new home, maybe starting by knocking down the stud wall and plastic ‘garden room’ with repro Tudor ceiling beams.
But it has all changed now. Our new urgency is the consequence of having put our own house on the market because we cannot abide Kent any more — especially as we live in Rosie Duffield’s constituency. The county is being paved over and fenced off, like most of the rest of the south of England.
And then there is this. Since the pandemic struck, there has been an enormous increase in the number of Londoners selling up in Dulwich and Finchley and getting the hell out for somewhere rural in the Home Counties. I don’t want them as my neighbours either. Not James and Olivia (and their children Wolfgang and Poppy) who voted for Corbyn and go down on one knee at the drop of a hat. Yes, I accept that we are a deeply misanthropic couple, full of snobbery — both reverse and actual — and a corrosive hatred for other people.
But how the market has changed in the north. I enquired about three houses recently. All had been on the market a matter of days. All had already gone — in all three cases to people from London. Even the crap properties sell within the week at above the asking price. You may have read about this exodus from our cities: believe me, it is real. Enquiries about country properties from Londoners rose by 126 per cent last year, according to one online estate agent. Two separate — and quite possibly unreliable — opinion polls suggested that either 15 per cent or 25 per cent of Londoners wanted to get the hell out of the city, citing the cost of housing and the lack of green spaces as a reason. A quarter of Londoners is more than two million people. In the main they are not heading for isolated rural properties, but for houses in agreeable towns: this is the big shift, from city to town. It is not just an exodus from London, but from Liverpool, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester too. As well as Berlin and San Francisco.
How, I wonder, will this change our country politically? One of the many big divides is between cities and towns. Cities are left of centre, towns right of centre, in general. Cities were for Remain, towns for Brexit. Cities take the knee, towns most certainly do not. What happens — do the incomers bring their idiotic political beliefs with them, so that our towns simply become miniature replicas of our cities, with all the political baggage that this entails?
It would seem so. The exodus from the cities began long before Covid — the virus merely accelerated the process — and Canterbury (technically a city but really a large town), for example, has now swung decisively to Labour and is woker than woke. Will this happen in the north, too? There are signs that it is happening already, even in my home area of Teesside. And what will happen to London? Will it go the way of Detroit? There is a big demographic change under way. I wonder which side of the political divide will win.