Houses of Parliament

Rosalind Russell mixes property and politics
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The Independent Online
In the four years since Tony and Cherie Blair have owned their Victorian semi in fashionable Barnsbury, north London, the house may have "earned" more than the Labour leader's annual salary. Reported to have cost pounds 250,000 when they bought it, the Blairs' house is now valued at nearer to pounds 500,000 by local agents. They have another, much more modest home in Trimdon Colliery, a village in Tony Blair's Sedgefield, Co Durham constituency.

Meanwhile, John and Norma Major's house in Great Stukeley, in Major's Huntingdon constituency, is worth about pounds 300,000, a rise of pounds 100,000 since 1990 when prices went into freefall.

In their Country Residential Review, the agency Knight Frank predicts a price hike of 25 per cent nationally over the next three years. And despite their warning of a probable two-to-three-month pause in the market in the runup to the general election, business is brisk. Such is the shortage of property, "even the old dogs are selling", beams one Home Counties agent, cheerfully confident that his blue-rinse clients will never know his true opinion of their homes.

But there are dramatic variations in price movements around the country. The West Midlands and Wales have had varied fortunes. Parts of the West Midlands have seen healthy increases, especially for cottages, but in Wales the market remains flat. In Scotland, a good-sized farmhouse will sell in weeks, but the market is awash with castles owned by people who, KF say, have "unrealistic vendor expectation relative to demand".

Dire warnings about what may happen to the property market if Labour get in have been a feature of the previous two general elections. They have been muted on the subject this time round, unable to wave a bogey of high interest rates at home owners who have struggled through years of negative equity, reduced mortgage interest relief and job insecurity. As most high-street estate agents will tell you, most people think it's irrelevant who wins: they'll buy or sell anyway, according to personal circumstances.

Whatever the outcome, you can barely slide a cigarette paper between the two leaders' constituencies when it comes to house prices. East Anglia and what Knight Frank describes as "the hinterlands of Durham" are both popular, prosperous areas. Sedgefield is no more flat-cap and pigeon- loft territory than Huntingdon is.

"Sedgefield has a country feel to it," says David Mills, of Reeds Rains. "It is a small market town, a bit of an oasis in Co Durham, which has many ex-mining communities. The schools are good, there is a racecourse and good local shops, and we have more pubs per capita than anywhere else. It is a fairly well-off community."

Home owners around Sedgefield commute to Durham or to Darlington, about 10 miles either way, but the area has also benefited from the new Japanese Samsung electronics factory in the North-east. Houses costing more than pounds 100,000 are thin on the ground because people who own them are happy to sit tight.

Ken Walton, married with two children, and manager of a nursing home, bought a three-bedroom, semi-detached house in Sedgefield for pounds 56,000. "It had been valued at pounds 65,000. And when I've built an extension, with a garage, bedroom and kitchen, it'll be worth pounds 90,000. With an election coming up, I hope the rates stay much the same. If Labour get in, I think they will. If the Conservatives get in, I think they'll go through the roof."

Peter Lane, of Peter Lane & Partners in Huntingdon, could do with a few more homes like John Major's. There just aren't enough to satisfy demand. But he has found the Prime Minister a new neighbour. Geoff and Anne Beaver are buying the pounds 220,000 three-bedroom bungalow opposite the Majors' home in Great Stukeley.

"We wanted a home close to the A1, which this is, because as an insurance broker I do a fair bit of travelling," says Geoff. "I think it was mentioned in the particulars about the Majors living opposite, but that is not why we are buying it. We liked Great Stukeley because it is a real village, with a village hall and pub and a life of its own."

If John Major loses the next election, there is a minor consolation. Knight Frank predict that East Anglia and the neighbouring East Midlands will see the strongest house price appreciation in the UK during the next three years.

No 5 Trimdon Hall Farm dates back to at least 1718. The four-bedroom house, close to Trimdon village green, has been extended and modernised. Reeds Rains are asking pounds 114,500. Thatched Abbots Barn in Hemingford Abbots, near Huntingdon, dates from 1631. It has been extended to include three bedrooms. There are inglenook fireplaces in the sitting room and dining room. A thatched barn has planning permission for a self-contained unit. Peter Lane is asking pounds 155,000.

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