Comment: Property will always be making headlines

Front page of the Ham & High, January 1 1972

Front page of the Ham & High, January 1 1972 - Credit: Archant

The current pace of the news cycle can make it feel as though we alone live in the direst times, but property drama has been unfolding on the front pages of the Ham & High for over 45 years

Perhaps it’s the innate self centeredness of being human, but we always think that we live in the direst of times. The past few weeks of news have made this sensation all the more acute. The sun blotted out of the sky, a symbolic bell falling silent, flood waters rising from Asia to America. Even the usual silly season property stories about private islands have been replaced by press releases on the best places to buy a nuclear bunker.

Newspaper headlines thrive off this, of course. In a modern media landscape where everyone and their brand is vying for the last millisecond of your attention it’s more tempting than ever to craft a particularly melodramatic headline.

After a year and a half on the Property desk I’m off to write for a digital architecture and design magazine, and I know I’m going to miss the thrill of the printed page almost as much as the unrivalled calibre of property we have in this unrivalled corner of north London.

Looking back, it’s been a rollercoaster roster of headlines. In May of 2016 one of my first stories reported that house prices in Camden had rocketed up almost 24 per cent in just one month. It was a year and a month later that the headline about the 30 per cent drop ran.

There’s no denying it’s been a bumpy ride. The stamp duty surcharge on second homes last April, the vote to exit the European Union a couple of months later, and the ensuing sense of uncertainty that’s settled over the market have given buyers and sellers alike a case of the jitters.

For my final column I decided to have one last rifle through the archives. It was comforting to realise that, actually, there’s not much news that’s really new.

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‘Land price hits ‘Klondike’ peak’ screams the front page from January 1, 1972. A property developer had paid the ‘fantastic sum’ of £215,000 for half an acre in Hampstead Village. In today’s money that £215,000 is equivalent to over £3,052,000.

The site on the corner of Fitzjohn’s Avenue and Arkwright Road had originally been sold at auction for £37,500 three years earlier in 1967.

As a relic from a less stats-obsessed age the story doesn’t mention it, but that’s an increase of a whopping 473 per cent. In our myopic way we forget that property developers making bank on land speculation is old news. Broad Street Estates Ltd has bought the same scrap of land in 1969 for £107,000 before selling it on to Farncombe Developments Ltd for double the price just three months later.

The land came with planning permission to build a block of 13 flats and six houses, but given the soaring value of the land the developers told the paper they now planned to scrap the designs in favour of something more ‘exclusive’, namely, just 10 houses priced at £80,000 each, or over £1.1 million in today’s money.

Interviewed in the paper, Camden councillor Mrs Millie Maker commented “It’s horrifying – absolutely madness”. The council of the day was Labour controlled, showing not much has changed in terms of politics either.

The gold rush analogy came from a spokesperson from the National Homebuilders Federation, who added:

“This is still the beginning. When the government’s Housing Finance Bill becomes law the situation will become worse. In fact, it is difficult to find words to describe the situation. Money seems to have ceased to have any value.”

Prescient words from this unnamed spokesperson. Although this was hardly the peak of house prices for Hampstead (something we arguably still haven’t reached), that bill did spell trouble for social housing.

That year Edward Heath’s Conservative government brought in the Housing Finance Act, which increased central government control over council housing whilst reducing its commitment to subsidising these schemes. Since the 1940s council housing had been lauded as a solution. Now it was being painted as the problem. Thatcher was still seven years away, along with the sense of direct competition between private and public sector housing and Right to Buy.

Mind boggling property prices in Hampstead. Concern about lack of affordable housing. Trouble brewing for social housing. For all our pearl-clutching headlines (my own included) these are issues that London has been facing for well over 50 years. In fact, I’d be ready to wager that the earliest editions of the Ham & High, back in 1860, had property stories gracing its front page.

The Ham & High has been here for 157 years. Whatever form it exists in by the time another century and a half passes, property will still be making headlines.