Rory Sutherland

Why no one ever moves back to London

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In last week’s Spectator, Martin Vander Weyer replied to a couple with a baby who had sought his advice on accepting a low offer for their cramped London flat to buy a house in commuterland. Their fear was that, if Brexit led to a property crash, they could face negative equity. Should they call the whole thing off?

Emphatically not, said Martin. ‘Buying a family home is a long-term choice, rarely regretted, in which fluctuating value matters far less than whether you love the house.’

He’s right, I’m sure. But I’d like to add a further thought experiment which may reaffirm their decision.

I recently heard of a different property dilemma: two married London teachers in their early fifties owned a small house now worth just under £1 million. The husband was originally from East Anglia, and wanted to move back there. His London--born wife refused to leave.

The choice was clear. They could move to a very nice house in Suffolk and continue to teach while having £500,000 in the bank with which to retire early, buy ostrich-skin elbow patches, donate to the Guardian website every day — or whatever it is teachers do with half a million quid. Or they could continue as before.

I don’t know the ‘right’ answer. It’s not for me to judge how much the wife values living in London. But I do know a telling question you could ask them. Can you imagine the same decision happening in reverse?

Imagine a couple of teachers living in a nice house in Norwich who one day win £500,000 on the National Lottery. Is it likely that one of them would say, ‘Oh, thank God for that. We can move to a much shittier house in London and work until retirement age’? This seems unlikely to me.

A large number of questions might be illuminated — if not answered —by imagining the situation in reverse. If Britain had no nuclear deterrent, would there be much clamour to obtain one? If Scots were independent already, what sort of union would they seek? Which eurozone countries would now be eager to join had they stayed outside the bloc?

And, in the case of Martin’s friends, how many suburbanites wake up every morning dreaming of living in a pokey flat in the city?

The problem with many decisions is that while the costs of change are often immediate, salient and quantifiable, the gains are yet to be experienced. Indeed, it is only when you leave London that you realise what a monumental pain in the arse it is to live there. Leaving London is a bit like acquiring a shed – you only realise how good it is once you do it. (And you never see anyone getting rid of a shed, do you?)

Only rarely do people move back into London. Generally, their children have left home and they also own a large property elsewhere. The fact that movement is mostly in one direction tells you something. Few who leave hanker to go back. This despite the fact that we are fed unending urbanist propaganda on television which portrays inner cities as packed with sophisticated, decent, liberal-minded folk, while suburbanites are all curtain-twitching Daily Mail readers whose shallow materialist existence is enlivened only by boundary disputes, fear of gypsies and occasional dogging escapades. This is highly inaccurate — it’s mostly the Daily Telegraph round our way.

But once you move there, you’ll find suburbia is much better than you expect. I moved to west Kent when I had children and immediately knew I’d made the right choice when I discovered one of our neighbours had been in the Brink’s-Mat gang. After all, this was someone who could live anywhere and he chose to live here.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.