The fall in home ownership is not just a southern problem

Good luck. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

We talk a lot about the house prices in this country. Once upon a time, we used to talk about how brilliant high house prices were; but at some point it’s started to dawn that high house prices serve mainly to transfer money to the old and rich from the young and poor, and these days, we’re more likely to talk about how terrible they are.

But still, there’s sometimes a tendency to think that it’s fundamentally just a London, or at least, a southern problem. Sure, London house prices are crazy, the thinking runs: but there are plenty of other places you can still afford to buy. What are these kids whining about?

Anyway, it’s bollocks.

To explain why, let’s start with a map. The housing affordability ratio is the value of the average home and the average pay packet. Historically, it’s generally hovered at around 4, which is good because four times salary is the maximum multiple of your salary that banks generally think is a good idea to led you as a mortgage.

Here’s the housing affordability ratio in 62 British cities in 2016:

Even the cheapest cities are now above 4. A significant number are way, way above 4. That doesn’t mean housing is completely out of reach, of course: people buy in couples; and first-time buyers are probably not buying the ‘average’ house, but a smaller, cheaper property. Nonetheless, this map suggests that even affordable cities are not in fact that affordable.

That said, the situation clearly is much worse in the south. Get above that Bristol-Wash line, and there are, I think, only three cities in the darker colours (a ratio of 7.7 or above): Cardiff, York and Edinburgh.

So why is the idea that house price are a southern problem nonsense? Here’s a chart of how the affordability ratio has changed over the last 10 years. It’s risen in 51 cities, and fallen in only 11.

Click to expand.

In other words, it’s getting worse almost everywhere.

And yet, it’s still risen most strikingly in the cities in the south east. So to really make my case we need another metric.

Here’s one more map. This one shows the change in the percentage of “households renting privately or living rent-free” between 2001 and 2011. That sounds more complicated than it actually is: it basically just means households living in someone else’s private property. In principle, there could be vast numbers of people living at their nan’s or something, but in practice this is almost certainly a measure of the private rental sector (PRS).

The first thing you notice: the PRS has increased in size in literally every city. The smallest increase was in Barnsley, where it changed by 4.2 per cent, from 10.1 to 14.3. At the other end of the scale s Slough, where it increased by over 13 points, from 12.1 per cent to over 25 per cent. That’s a significant shift in the local tenure mix, and likely reflects both the town’s position in the London commuter belt, and the rise of the buy-to-let landlord class.

We can put the change more baldly. In 2001, there were 21 cities where less than 10 per cent of households were renting, and just three where it was more than 20 per cent. Ten years later, literally nowhere had less than 10 per cent of households renting – the lowest was Basildon, at 11.1. Meanwhile, 21 cities were at over 20. One, Oxford, was at over 30.

Still, that was six years ago, so I’m sure things will have improved by now, right?

[Brief pause for hollow laughter.]

 This is not new information, of course. In 2016 the Resolution Foundation put out a report showing how home ownership rates had changed. It showed that they’d fallen pretty much everywhere:

Click to expand.

The other side of the coin was that private renting has soared:

Click to expand.

In all sorts of places that people who can’t afford London are patronisingly told to move to, housing has become more expensive, and people have got stuck renting.

The message is, I hope, clear. Housing has become less affordable almost everywhere. Yes, the situation is worst in the south; but we shouldn’t let this obscure the fact home ownership, something that Britain’s politicians still claim to support, is now in national crisis.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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