Property: What pounds 60,000 can buy you in Britain: From Belfast to Birmingham to Brighton, the price gap is narrowing. David Lawson reports

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The Independent Online
THE AVERAGE UK home drifted up in value last month from pounds 60,000 to pounds 61,500 - the biggest monthly increase for four years. This is the latest in a string of figures bolstering the mood of cautious optimism. It comes from the Halifax Building Society computer, after it has digested thousands of mortgage applications. But what does the money actually buy you around Britain?

Not a lot in central London, despite the slump. A one-bedroom flat on the Uxbridge Road in west London might be typical. The average home in the centre costs around pounds 86,500, despite dropping more than 9 per cent in the past 12 months.

But central London is unusual. A look around the country shows that pounds 60,000 or so will pick up remarkably similar homes in every other region, including Greater London. From properties the Halifax has handled, it seems that the average British home is a three-bedroom semi or a bungalow. Even Northern Ireland, dubbed the cheapest region by the Halifax, with an average dipping below pounds 40,000, has semis and bungalows at around the national average. Greater London can come up with similar homes in areas such as South Norwood and Croydon.

This comparison shows the danger of taking broad averages too seriously. Prices vary enormously within each region, depending on the exact type and location of the property. The Halifax's own figures show averages in Greater London ranging from pounds 45,500 for post-war flats to almost pounds 72,000 for pre-1914 ones, reflecting the differences between places as diverse as Merton and Mayfair.

A Londoner with an average semi worth pounds 103,000 might expect to sweep into a castle in the West Midlands, where the typical home costs almost pounds 60,000. In fact, an average Victorian detached home there sells for more than pounds 147,000. Similarly, the countryside of Cheshire and North Yorkshire are full of houses costing far more than regional averages indicate. Good homes aren't cheap anywhere.

The national house price figures which emerge in a blaze of publicity every three months often obscure what is going on locally. One significant point being lost in a blizzard of statistics is that the North-South gap is closing. In the South-east, hefty falls of as much as 35 per cent in country homes have helped bring the regional average down far more than the 15 or 20 per cent drops seen in the towns.

The gulf between London and the rest of the country is still large; an average London semi is still more than pounds 126,000 compared with pounds 55,500 in Birmingham and less than pounds 50,000 in Sheffield. But the old line from the Severn to the Wash is fading. Eight of the top 10 counties in the league table for prices of semis are still in the South-east (the other two are in Scotland). But the gap is narrowing.

The boom was good for the South - but not good enough to compensate for the subsequent slump. In the past 10 years prices have risen almost 130 per cent in Yorkshire & Humberside compared with 97 per cent in London, says the Halifax. Admittedly, values started low in Yorkshire, but they are catching up. Property values in the South are between 6 and 9 per cent lower than a year ago compared with falls of only 3 to 6 per cent in the North. And some analysts believe the changes are far from over.

'We may be seeing the beginning of the end for the traditional North-South divide,' reports Chris Barnes, economic development officer for south Bedfordshire, in The Planner, the professional journal for Britain's planners. His main message is that regional subsidies should be switched from the North to the South - a call already picked up by some South-eastern councils who are pleading for European grants.

The South will continue to suffer from factors that brought housing down with such a crash, he says. These include hefty job losses in defence and financial services, both key employers for housebuyers. Ironically, the region will also suffer a backlash from the property slump itself. Prices will be held back by a rise in repossessions. A greater proportion of owners will be unable to move because they have homes worth less than their mortgages. And a substantial number of business people who cannot expand because they normally secure loans on the value of their homes will be unable to provide the job prospects so essential to boost homebuying.

New buyers will not grieve too much at this narrowing of the gap, however. In 1989, a typical couple in the South-east spent 57 per cent of after-tax income on their mortgage, whereas in Yorkshire the equivalent figure was less than 30 per cent. Today the picture is more uniform, according to the House Builders Federation. Falling prices have brought both couples relief, but the gap has also narrowed enormously. The Yorkshire home now takes 13 per cent of the couple's income compared with 17 per cent in the South-east.

(Photographs omitted)