What I learned by watching French property programmes

A Parisian apartment for rent. Image: Getty.

There are many reasons to watch Recherche appartement ou maison, a French property programme similar to Location Location Location. You get to be a virtual tourist in different French cities, imagine a world without carpets, and enjoy lots of bidet-based historical anecdotes.

But it can also tell us a lot about the housing situation in France – and in turn help to make sense of our own property market. Here’s what I learned.

The housing ladder is a very British concept

I always assumed that our neighbours shared our Thatcherite obsession with home ownership as a symbol of adulthood and social mobility. Recherche appartement ou maison taught me that I was wrong.

There is not even a satisfactory French translation for the concept of the “housing ladder”. Participants seem somehow freed from the societal pressures to buy, and renting is not seen as a sign of failure.

It is possible to make a property show without tourturing the young

British property programmes are famously aspirational and, for millennials, they are often seen as a form of torture.

Recherche appartement ou maison is equally guilty of caving to our masochistic desire to watch other people viewing things we could never afford, and rejecting them because the toilet and the shower are in the same room.

Yet it also has a more compassionate side: for example, you can go on the show if you are looking to rent. There are also plenty of participants who are seeking to buy their first home, without having suspiciously limitless funds.

Then again, perhaps a similar approach would be impossible in this country. It’s possible viewers wouldn’t enjoy seeing millennial after millennial coming to Kirsty and Phil with a quarter of a million pounds and the goal of owning their own home in London, and having their dreams crushed. week after week.

Flats are the norm

I also noticed that a high proportion of the properties featured are flats, especially in the larger cities, and that families seem a lot more prepared to live in apartments. After a bit of digging, I realised that the UK, not France, was the anomaly. Of the EU-28, UK residents are the second most likely to live in a house rather than a flat, behind only Ireland.

This is particularly true when we compare Paris and London. In London, only 14 per cent of homes are in buildings of five floors or more, compared to 59 per cent in Paris.

Flats are smaller, of course. In Île-de-France, the region which includes Paris, the average surface area is 60m2. In London, it is 80m2. But when we are shown tiny, one-bedroom flats in the French capital, they often seem well-conceived and make good use of the space, rather than visibly being part of a larger house which has been awkwardly divided up.

Paris is extremely expensive per square metre, yet it seems more affordable than London, because of its high proportion of smaller – and thus cheaper – flats.


English words are everywhere

No language is truly as universal as estate agent-speak. Like us, the French find themselves saying “studio” and “kitchenette”, when what they really mean is “no adult human could live in this space without going insane”. French housing vocabulary is also full of English words, from design aspects like “bow-window”, to pseudo-anglicisms, such as “dressing” (room), and “immeuble de standing” (a high-class apartment block).

Sometimes things get lost in translation. The term “WC” is widely used across the channel to refer to the toilet, but for some reason the pronunciation has been shortened, so that it becomes “VC”. (For those who don’t speak French: the language, sensibly enough, pronounced W as “dooble-vee”). This resulted in a visit where the estate agent showed the client to the “WC”, and the client responded, confused: “Why double-VC? There’s only one.”

Paris is expensive, but London is worse

In Paris intra-muros – the administrative centre of Paris, which is separated from its suburbs by the Périphérique ring-road – the average property costs an eye-watering €8,940 per m2. This is still slightly less expensive than central London, depending on how you define central.

But therein lies the difference: central Paris is clearly defined. The Périphérique provides a neat boundary beyond which house prices fall, often drastically, even though most Parisians live outside of these boundaries. In La Goutte-d’Or, for example – a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris – property costs on average €7,030 per m2. Walk a few minutes north until you cross the Périphérique into Saint-Denis, and the price drops to €3,300 per m2.

“If you would cross the Périphérique, you could get a lot more value for your money,” says the agent-presenter. The clients look shocked. It seems the agent has broken a taboo. “Once you’ve lived in Paris, nobody wants to move to the suburbs.”

I guess there is one thing that links property programmes on both sides of the channel: people are impossible.

You can hear more about some of these subjects on a recent edition of our podcast Skylines.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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