Brighton rents, that commute and a tunnel or two

Recent headlining of Brighton rents rising by 18% in a year prompt this anecdotal and very rambling piece stretching back 37 years to the Spring of 1979.

I arrived in Brighton in early 1979 after one of my trips, penniless, and took up residence under the West Pier for 8 months. During this time, by doing casual work and signing on the dole (hoping the Statute of Limitation works here given my ‘fessing up to being a benefit cheat) I had the deposit to rent a small flat near Fiveways. Signing on required a proper address so I found an accommodation address in George Street, Kemptown; this was my official address for my first 8 months in Brighton.

Footnote: the business that provided the accommodation address was run by the Lawrences, a lovely old couple who came to Brighton from Russia in the 1930’s in search of a better life. I will always remember their kindness;  they were completely unaware of my cunning plan to defraud the DSS, but I always had a piece of cake waiting for me when I picked up my post that included that rather important brown envelope; I must have looked really skinny back then.

My tiny flat in Fiveways cost me about a tenner a week rent and provided the stability to look for work.

Work in my case meant London. The Brighton job market back then, before the explosion in the multimedia sector, was mainly jobs in the hospitality sector, not my cup of tea. I mean, me, a waiter at The Grand, you are having a larf.

My first commute to London took place just before Christmas 1979; a handful of commuters huddling in the cold on the platform at Preston Park station waiting for the seven thirty (ish) to London. Back then (and this is very relevant to the 18% rent headline) the train was virtually empty till it got to Haywards Heath, then a few more commuters got on, still plenty of seats when the train arrived at East Croydon.  Everyone had a seat back then in olden days.

I have no fond memories of British Rail; the service was bad and the staff rude and surly; I remain convinced that page one of British Rail Staff Manual instructed staff to respond to any question from fare paying passengers with the retort “Don’t ask me mate, I only work here”.

The commute changed. Every year I was joined by more and more people, the sort of people who used to live in nice parts of London and who had well paid jobs.  Unlike ‘olden days’ no one had a seat after Burgess Hill.

Today Brighton station is heaving with commuters waiting for the seven thirty (ish) ‘sardine can’ to one of the London terminals. Has anyone done research on the median salary earned by these commuters; I wager it is high, not high enough for a nice flat in Notting Hill (where I used to live in the early 1970s and helped make cool long before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) but high enough to make Brighton property, buying or renting, very affordable. During my last 10 years commute to London Bridge I was on low six figures, but doubt I was ‘median’ or anywhere near.

Another footnote:  (Yes I know footnotes are supposed to be at the end, but bear with me) My commute, door to desk, from my home in Walpole Terrace (I jumped on the property ladder in 1982) to Canary Wharf, took, unless a tunnel or two got in the way, one hour and forty minutes.  The commute from my sisters place in Crouch End (that’s in London by the way) to the very same desk took ten minutes less. Think about that, just ten minutes, the time it takes to drink a skinny latte.

A tunnel or two

Every Brighton commuter knows that problems with either Balcombe tunnel (prone to flooding) or Clayton tunnel, or late running maintenance issues, mean a nice day off. Unfortunately this means lost earnings and reliability to employer issues.  Another anecdote, once asked my project manager why he did not take on a candidate we both felt was perfect for a role, his reply “… nah he lives in Brighton, means three day week, good job you live in Crouch End”  Me (guilty face, mixed with smugness). So, top tip, if living in Brighton and applying for a job in London be creative with your address.

We need our local MPs (Peter Kyle take note) to push for BML2; any issues with those tunnels means a detour via St Leonards or Littlehampton, or a bus ride through the Sussex countryside.

Brighton rents

So back to that headline of unaffordable Brighton rents rising by 18% in the last year; blame it on those tunnels. If tunnelling hadn’t been invented Brighton would be like Hastings, instead of a cool, cosmopolitan, seaside suburb of London.

You see, Brighton rents, far from being unaffordable,  are very affordable to some, and these well paid commuters spend most of their high salaries in Brighton; they shop here, use the bars and restaurants, and (those that are owner occupiers) employ local handymen.

I would expect double digit rent inflation to be the norm in Brighton for the foreseeable future.  Rationally, they need to catch up with leafy Crouch End.

The housing crisis

So what can be done? Nothing, in my opinion, without the realisation that what is needed is a radical reassessment of housing as a provision of shelter rather than a store of value. This paradigm shift will come up against the entitlement that home owners feel to continuous increases in house prices. Nothing illustrates this issue more graphically than the right wing tabloids proclaiming house price rises with a tone more associated with the discovery of a cure for cancer – as good news.

Both main political parties have woken up to the housing crisis. But neither seems willing to grasp the nettle with each party developing policy aimed at core voters, policies that range from the irresponsible to the dangerous. The Conservatives want more home owners at any cost and seem quite happy to push more young people into debt. The Labour Party in the 2015 election made dangerous proposals around rent caps and banning letting agencies; both these proposals would have made a bad situation a lot worse.

It is not possible to fix issues in the private rental sector such as short term tenancies, minimum standards and unpredictable ad hoc rent hikes without removing profit from home ownership. The majority of private landlords in the UK are speculators as well as landlords; they always have the option of selling on the next bubble or if they find the legal framework too hostile. This contrasts with Germany and highlights the stupidity of transplanting German style rent controls into a very different environment.

The alternative is to do nothing and watch more generations being forced away from their local area, away from friends and family.

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