Home is where the heart is: Kirstie Allsopp and levelling up

At some point last week everyone’s favourite property experts sat down with a journalist from the Sunday Times and gave an interview puffing their Love It or List It show on Channel 4. It was meant, seemingly, to be a gentle little chit chat for one of the lifestyle sections of the paper. But Kirstie Allsopp shared a few asides about first time buyers, the paper gave them a ‘newsy’ polish, and voila! she was at the centre of a storm, cast as a wildly out of touch, impossibly privileged, villain.

There is so much to say about this story, not the least of which is to wonder if Kirstie and Phil were given solid PR advice prior to talking to the newspaper. Kirstie claims that her words have been twisted, but someone who has been in the public eye as long as she has must have spotted a few red flags before saying she was “enraged” and referring to “easyJet flights, coffee, gym memberships and Netflix” when talking about getting on the housing ladder. But what’s most interesting to me is that one aspect of the furore illustrates how difficult ‘levelling up’ is going to be.

Perhaps the least objectionable thing Kirstie said was that if people were prepared to move they would find much cheaper and much better houses elsewhere. She might also have mentioned folk not moving in the first place, since a reasonable proportion of those trying to get on the London housing ladder are not originally from the Capital (note: this ‘proportion’ doesn’t have to be huge; imagine the impact on property prices in London if even 5 percent fewer people wanted to live there). And yet this doesn’t happen enough. Why?

There is something that doesn’t add up in the economics of where people in Britain choose to live. In theory, if prices in one place are too high then cheaper housing elsewhere ought to draw people in (or discourage them from leaving). Companies should be attracted to this pool of labour and also to lower property costs for themselves. People would then take those jobs. Levelling up should be pretty automatic, except it isn’t. At least until the pandemic businesses preferred to be in and around London; people followed them; businesses followed the people; so on, almost into infinity.

In theory, then, don’t we crack this by encouraging job creation outside London and the South East? Move a few Channel 4s and Government departments to the North, provide incentives to private businesses to locate in the regions, and that should do the trick, right? People will follow the jobs or better yet won’t leave their regions for employment in the South, and their presence and spending will create other jobs, and everything will be better. But in reality all the evidence suggests that job opportunities and cheaper houses are not enough by themselves to make the difference; look at the fact that unemployment is currently higher in London than anywhere else. What more is needed?

This is the bit of levelling up that Kirstie failed to address. Companies are reluctant in part to move out of the South East due to the productivity gap with, for example, the North, driven largely by structural issues such as smaller labour markets stemming from much worse transport infrastructure. Individuals may be unwilling to depart from, or never migrate to, London for similar reasons – and also because of the concentration of cultural, educational and other amenities in the Capital and the surrounding areas. Simply using economic levers is not going to be enough; until the whole picture is changed who will take Kirstie’s advice and look to buy up north?

To this extent the broad sweep of the recently-published Government’s Levelling Up White Paper is really welcome. Yes, there are heroic assumptions in there about Whitehall actually taking a joined up approach and about future funding streams, and we still need a lot more detail. But there is at least a recognition that to level up the UK will take a lot more than scattering some jobs around the North. By shining a light on these points Kirstie Allsopp’s otherwise tone deaf comments may just have been a tiny bit worthwhile, after all – although only by accident.