Don’t Knock It

After a lively Twitter debate with an old buddy that stemmed from Scottish Government proposals that will effectively raise stamp duties by making them more proportionate to house prices, we got on to a discussion about which parts of Scotland this would most affect and the degree of incentive for people to pick less affluent places to live. It turns out that the old East/West split in Central Scotland appears alive and well but now manifesting itself in house price snobbery.

Now, coming from someone living in North Berwick, you might think any observation would be rather rich—quite apart from the house price. But as a NB ‘schemie’ growing up in a prefab whose dad fixed cars for a living and who still lives in a modest flat in the town, I’m taking no lessons in anything as outmoded as class warfare.

Despite the fiscal rigours of the last few years, Edinburgh and its surrounds has done pretty well and, despite falls in house prices from silly levels (a dumpy cottage in NB needing major work once went for over £600k because it was on the beach) people are still trading modest scale family homes for £400k in and around Edinburgh. The new stamp duty proposals would add £7,500 to the sale of such a house.

What bothers me is the now-common fixation that anyone who sees themselves as successful or even just upwardly mobile regards a house purchase as essential. One of my coffee buddies was bemoaning how his 28-year-old son was about to settle down with partner and baby-on-the-way; together they had far too little to think of buying a house in Edinburgh.

While he and they have my sympathies, who said that ‘getting on the property ladder’ was either necessary or a right and how much are we fragmenting society by assuming that it is. When I lived in Germany, house ownership was uncommon. My department head at Siemens pulled down the equivalent of £100k but rented a beautiful flat for his family of four. The whole chain up to him (my project manager & his boss the section head) also rented. And rather than being strapped to pay the mortgage, they all went out socialising regularly, skiing throughout the season and taking 3-week holidays in the Maldives.

Now I don’t want to get racist about this but the get-a-job/get-married/get-a-mortgage culture seems originally a product of London-centric SE England. When I was growing up, renting—even a council house—didn’t have a lot of social stigma in Scotland because  so many did it. When, in my wilder/hairier days, I played the working mens clubs of Sheffield or Doncaster, I had the same feeling about England’s industrial North. While I deny no-one the right to profit from their shrewd investments, why should so many people’s lives now be fixated on house price appreciation as if it were a second career?

When there was a recession in the late 1980’s and London house prices dropped for the first time in decades, from the London-based media, you would have thought the world was coming to an end. On the other hand, the gentrification of Islington is regarded by many as Blair’s greatest achievement—although the retail selection is greatly improved upmarket, the streets and house themselves appear largely unchanged. It’s just the prices have more than doubled so the residents chuckle all the way to the bank.

Having lived in a similar environment, I find it poisonous. Palo Alto in California was always a little precious because of a smattering of professors from nearby Stanford. That made both houses and downtown interesting and desirable so that the wealth explosion from nearby Silicon Valley drove prices up and the more interesting elements out. Today, funky cinemas, diners, bookshops and hardware stores are gone, replaced by $50 lunch venues, aruba coffee, organic specialists and Apple’s newest retail outlet.

Most importantly, not only has a place like Palo Alto lost its soul but it has become a homogenised up-scale ghetto full of venture capitalists, lawyers, surgeons and psychiatrists where all the workers, shop assistants, gardeners, even police and postmen, have to commute in from somewhere more affordable. Although still a town, it is a mockery of community.

Because it is larger, Edinburgh has not done an Islington or Palo Alto, although parts of it are verging on it. I have a divorced friend living on the same street as J.K.Rowling did who has live there modestly since the ’70’s who could be a multi-millionaire overnight just by putting her house on the market. But for the 18% of homebuyers here who are in the market for a £400,000 home, I struggle to find sympathy that they would pay £7,500 as a surcharge for Stamp Duty. In California they would pay £24,000 in realtor fees before any such charges were added.

My twitter companion is outraged by such things and believe it will deter people from coming to Scotland to live. I disagree. What it might do is encourage people to consider the many alternatives on more affordable. Instead of always plumping for Scotland’s Islington here in the capital as a no-brainer investment bound to make them richer as prices soar further, why not consider the considerable charms of Biggar or West Kilbride or Newport or Arbroath?

Because, not only are such places considerably more affordable and therefore provide even more potential on the up side should they ever become as sought-after as Stockbridge but they are real, living communities where people still know and like and help each other—not least because they’re not always moving on every two years to the next house trade-up.

Scotland is full of such places. You fall over the unspoiled rural variant all over Aberdeenshire, the Borders, Galloway and the length of the A9. And even the area most devastated by the loss of its industrial past—Inverclyde—has an amazing number of positive ingredients pointing to the future. Drive the Western end of the M8 and you might ask if I’m crazy.

But explore Langbank or Kilmalcolm; admire the Victorian exuberance of Wemyss Bay pier; go sailing out of Inverkip; wonder at the rich views of Argyll from the various vantage points in Greenock. Basket-case economy it may be for now but this is a place with major potential. It only needs to secure major contracts for West coast offshore wind farms, for tidal schemes, for fleets of wave serpents, for subsea interconnectors and the glory days of Edwardian riches built on quality engineering could soon be back.

So, were I surveying the bleakness of Bury or Stoke-on-Trent (or, for that matter, crowded Slough or Chelmsford) and thinking that my family needs space to grow and a better quality in their life, they could do worse than lay down that £407,500 for a nice place in Trinity. But better yet, for half of that, they could get settled among friends in a nice house in Spey Road, overlooking the Kyles of Bute and wonder why they ever thought of a city or stayed so long in Potteries in the first place.

 

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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