We hear much conflicting advice about the state of the property market – from observations on fluctuating prices to varying predictions for a promising recovery or continuing gloom. However, one sector of the market that seems to be encouragingly healthy one is that of the market town – supported by some fairly compelling statistics.
Research from Lloyds TSB at the end of 2011 found that the average house price in market towns had risen by 103 per cent over the past decade, compared to a less spectacular rise of 53 per cent nationwide. Furthermore, over half of the market towns surveyed saw house prices at least double during this time, with some of the largest price increases in the north of England. Stanhope in County Durham recorded the greatest average rise of 158 per cent, whilst Ferryhill, also in County Durham recorded the second largest rise of 155 per cent. So what is attracting people to market towns, and why are prices rising so rapidly in comparison to average national prices?
A SENSE OF HISTORY
Originally, market towns were located by a river or ancient road to facilitate easy access by foot or cart, meaning that transport links have always been a significant part of their location. Historically, to hold a market, permission was required from the King, so they were also usually places of some political influence. As holding a market is largely a historical tradition carried on through the ages, even our 21st century market towns retain a strong sense of history. It is this sense of history which may also go some way towards accounting for the fact that they are likely to have more independent and specialist shops than are to be found on a more recently constructed high street.
Often with a strong agricultural influence, market towns may be more compact than their purpose built or modern counterparts. They have evolved organically over centuries and are often situated within close proximity to attractive rural areas, but with good transport links to cities. Thus, they offer the homebuyer the best of both worlds: countryside on the doorstep combined with a thriving local economy and easy access to larger settlements for work or recreation.
OUT AND ABOUT
Transport will always be a major factor determining a place’s desirability in the property market. In order for a town to host a market successfully, the products, vendors and buyers need to be able to access the town with relative ease. Unsurprisingly, the top performing towns in the Lloyds’ survey all have good transport links to their local cities, whilst the construction of numerous town bypasses across the UK have significantly reduced congestion within the town centres.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
One of the reasons that the Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield has long been considered one of the most desirable places to live (with a price tag to match) is because it is halfway between Oxford and London, so historically was a convenient stop off point for travellers. Nowadays, it still offers great links to London by motorway and rail – and is less than half an hour’s drive from Heathrow airport. Yet this town maintains its air of history and community – and still hosts a market on Tuesdays.
Similarly, the beautiful Gloucestershire village of Moreton-in-Marsh also has a Tuesday market selling a wide variety of goods, making it more of a ‘working town’ than some of its chocolate box neighbours. Located between the larger towns and cities of Stratford-upon-Avon, Evesham, Bath and Oxford, Moreton-in –Marsh was once a popular coaching stop, but now attracts wealthy commuters who can be at Paddington station in around 90 minutes.
TAKE THE TRAIN
The improvements to train speeds and rail services has made London and other major cities an easy commute for many market towns. For example, the journey time from Market Harborough where our company’s head office is based, to London St Pancras is less than one hour – whilst Paris is only three hours’ journey by train and Brussels within five. With rail season tickets costing £7,500 per annum from Market Harborough to St Pancras, the commuter will find house prices in Market Harborough very appealing compared to London prices. Inevitably, local prices have risen due in part to increased commuter demand.
A MARRIAGE OF OLD AND NEW
Whilst one of a market town’s most attractive features is its sense of history, these towns still need to move forward and embrace change if they are to thrive. The most forward thinking towns over the last decade have been paving the way for commerce to flourish. New contemporary business parks with plentiful parking, often located on the outskirts of towns to maintain the sense of tranquillity, have created new employment and business opportunities which have in turn increased the demand for housing. As part of its strategy to continue attracting businesses to the area, Market Harborough has invested in a new hub for business in the form of the Innovation Centre. A fantastic advert for the town, the centre is a draw for businesses of all shapes and sizes, who like householders, are increasingly attracted by the combination of rural landscapes and amenities on the doorstep – and the added attraction of precious space for parking. This is a strategy that certainly seems to be working here as the last census stated that the unemployment rate for the Harborough LE16 district of 1.84 per cent is significantly lower than the national rate (at that time) of 3.22 per cent.
HOLDING THE PLANNING REINS
Balancing tradition with change is often difficult, but it is something that thriving towns have managed to do. Whilst market towns typically offer a range of property types at their centre such as Georgian and Victorian, as these towns have grown, more modern properties have been built, usually around the outskirts.
Despite a difficult time in the construction industry over the past few years, developers have remained keen to build good quality housing developments in affluent market towns.
However, perhaps mindful of preserving the sense of character which attracts these developers in the first place, planners have generally kept a tight rein on development. Therefore, demand continues to outstrip supply in many places, ensuring a healthy increase in property prices.
A SENSE OF SECURITY
We all want to live somewhere that we feel safe and secure and market town centres have a well deserved reputation for being safe and pleasant places to live.
For example, figures reported by the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships indicate that violence, robbery, burglary and theft are considerably lower in the Harborough LE16 district relative to the Leicestershire and national data.
Furthermore, in a recent survey carried out by the Halifax, Market Harborough was reported to have the best quality of life outside the south of England, ranked 14th overall in the survey. Relevant criteria included the fact that houses are larger than average, life expectancy is very high and school results are some of the best in Great Britain.
This last factor has become increasingly important as professional couples who once sought the attractions of city life turn into families seeking a different life experience. Good educational facilities are essential to a progressive environment – and a significant draw for families. Reputation, results and continued investment in facilities, both educational and sporting, are all influential factors. In this area of the East Midlands we are also spoilt for choice of well respected private schools such as Oakham, Uppingham, Stamford, Rugby and Oundle. All located in market towns and all rated as some of the best in the country. The desire to live within easy reach of these towns has a positive effect on property prices, whilst the university status of towns such as Loughborough has increased the demand for student and associated housing, creating a vitality which has a positive effect on house prices.
Thriving town centres have become self sufficient on the shopping front, attracting big name food retailers such as Sainsbury, Waitrose and Tesco, yet the greatest retail draw of all is the independent boutique shops which add a character all of their own. In addition, most towns now have a variety of restaurants, cafes and bars which make these centres a delight to visit during the daytime and also evenings – which is not always the case in city centres. With doctors, banks, shops, restaurants, post offices, leisure centres and a good transport infrastructure, market towns are models of self sufficiency.
As an estate agent located in a market town, we speak to many home buyers moving into the area. They tell us that they are attracted by the friendliness of the local people, the variety of independent shops, the well preserved historical buildings and the convenience that the town offers. These comments would be equally applicable to most market towns in the country and sum up why they are so sought after, why prices have increased by more than 100 per cent in the past decade and why the future looks bright for the property market in these thriving towns.
Peter Buckingham is a Partner and Head of Residential Sales at Andrew Granger and Co
www.andrewgranger.co.uk, in Leicestershire.