A tale of two towns: Rip-off Britain? That depends on where you live

THE RELATIVE ATTRACTIONS OF THE OPPOSITES
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The Independent Online
AS THE debate over "rip-off Britain" moves towards mild hysteria, with consumers enviously eyeing the cost of consumables in mainland Europe and the United States, new evidence has emerged to show that price differentials within the country are at least as great as those between Britain and other nations. What you can afford to buy increasingly depends on where you live.

If you happen to live in Croydon, the unloved suburban sprawl on London's southern fringe, it helps to be a big spender - because this is where Britain's highest cost of living is to be found.

But inhabitants of Billingham, the even less-loved appendage to a giant ICI works on Teesside, can at least congratulate themselves on the fact that their prices are the lowest in the land.

A typical middle-class family in Croydon has to spend nearly pounds 4,000 a year more on food, other essentials and services than its counterpart in Billingham, according to a new survey. Other high-rolling locations include Birmingham and Milton Keynes, while Wolverhampton, St Austell and York all rank in the bargain basement.

The survey, by the Reward Group of market researchers, involved visiting about 50 shops in each town and city to compare prices on 211 products and services. It was been produced as a guide to firms on low-cost areas for new offices or relocations, but excludes housing costs. Researchers found the cost of living is 28 per cent higher in some parts of the country than in others.

An average middle-class family spends pounds 6,495 a year on food and eating out, pounds 1,114 on drink and pounds 8,995 on services such as hairdressers, domestic cleaners and school fees.

Croydon-dwellers have to stump up pounds 7,289, pounds 1,057 and pounds 9,727 respectively for the same baskets of items. But identical families in Billingham need pay only pounds 5,743, pounds 996 and pounds 7,835.

Alan Clark, a member of the Stockton District Council, defended Billingham, saying it had open spaces and high- quality council property. "We have excellent schools, good leisure facilities and low property prices," he said.

Sevi Hassan, a supermarket manageress in Croydon, said she personally did not find the town an expensive place to live. But when her relatives from Manchester come to visit they often express shock at the prices. "If I take them shopping and I pay pounds 150 for a trolley full of groceries, they will always say, `Oh, we could get two trolleys for that at home'," said Ms Hassan.

The survey supports them. It found that food in Croydon cost almost 15 per cent more than the national average. In Billingham, however, food and drink cost 10 per cent below average.

Even when places are much closer together, differences can still be considerable. Birmingham came out as the fourth most expensive in the survey. But nearby Wolverhampton emerged as one of the cheapest.

Different areas also have their own inflation rates on certain items for no obvious reason, most of them significantly above the Government's headline inflation figure of 2.1 per cent.

Beer has gone up in the West Midlands by 13 per cent over the past year, while bread in the South-west has gone up by the same amount. Bizarrely, while the cost of cheese nationally increased by an average of 4 per cent, in East Anglia it plummeted by 12 per cent.

Croydon

BIDDING FOR city status in a competition launched by the Government as part of the millennium celebrations, Croydon's pitch involves the claim that the town's skyline is reminiscent of Manhattan.

The model Kate Moss and Captain Sensible, an Eighties pop star, are the biggest celebrities the town has spawned. Recent developments include a multi-screen cinema and a shopping and leisure complex.

Its Tramlink public transport system is due in operation this year, while the town boasts 600 restaurants. Council officials punt it as "The gateway to London", and claim that "cafe culture" is thriving. Food prices are 15 per cent above the national average.

Billingham

THE TOWN was once synonymous with the ICI plant on the north bank of the River Tees, which in the Sixties and Seventies employed about 20,000 people. But after the sale of most of the plant and thousands of redundancies, ICI now employs just 420.

Main employers of the town's residents now include the Hartlepool nuclear power station and Billingham's KP plant - the biggest crisp factory in Europe. But 250 job losses were announced by KP in January.

The Forum is a big attraction in the town, boasting an ice rink and a theatre. Shops have lost passing trade since the A19 road was diverted around the town. Food prices are 10 per cent below the national average.

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