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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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