Rip-off Britain? That depends on where you live

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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.

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 £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 £6,495 a year on food and eating out, £1,114 on drink and £8,995 on services such as hairdressers, domestic cleaners and school fees.

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

Alan Clark, a member of the Stockton District Council, defended Billingham, saying it had open spaces and highquality 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 £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.

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