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9 November 2022

I am already worrying about re-entering the London rental market

Facing a perfect storm of rent rises, I contemplate leaving the capital.

By Pippa Bailey

It seems my former landlord may have done me a favour by pricing me out of my flat when he did, for I could hardly have picked a better time to be sharing the burden of bills with other, better established adults if I’d tried. (Though his “kindness” is infinitely outdone, of course, by that of the friends who stepped in to house me.)

Somehow it is only two weeks until the people for whom I am house-sitting return from their travels and I move on to the next stop in my tour of north London. My new hosts spent part of their half-term break clearing the room that will be my bedroom and sent me photographs of it, which also feature small children in dungarees – though they do little to help give it a sense of scale.

[See also: UK politics is the same thing over and over, so why do we expect different results?]

I am rather looking forward to being woken early by my little housemates’ demands for breakfast and stories, and to joining their curious conversations about school pals and superheroes and what the best and worst things to have a bath of would be. (Readers who are parents are now, no doubt, laughing at my naive romanticism.)

But these past couple of months have moved frightfully quickly, and no doubt the next six will do the same, and so my mind is already turning to what I will do when they are over.

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The Office for National Statistics’ index of UK private housing rental prices shows the highest increase in rents (3.6 per cent) in the year to September since its records began. According to Rightmove, things are even worse: the average rental price in London is 16 per cent higher than it was a year ago. A quick search finds that the cheapest one-bedroom flat in my borough is £1,500 a month (as a single person, you’d need to be taking home £5,000 a month after tax, student loans, etc, for such a rent to be the recommended 30 per cent of income). And now the BBC is warning that there will be fewer rentals on the market in the coming months as landlords “struggle with higher mortgage rates”; the situation is “particularly acute in London”. I can’t imagine things will have improved by the time I re-enter the rental market next spring.

I have long sworn that if I ever left London it would be to leave the UK altogether (preferably for New York or Copenhagen, if you know of any jobs going). But I am beginning to contemplate leaving the capital – perhaps for Brighton, where my money would stretch a little further, and where my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard and I could console each other over pints, and then write about the experience in a spiralling Droste-effect set-up.

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The less drastic option, of course, would be to move further out of London, but this seems unpalatable: not just because the cheaper areas of the capital are to be found in the south and I have spent the best part of a decade swearing blind that all the good things in life are to be found north of the Thames, but because there is something sad about being near but not quite near enough; outside, looking in.

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Growing up in the depths of suburbia in zone six, south-west London, I dreamed of living on a Tube line, freed from the tyranny of the South West Trains timetable to roam as and when I pleased. It was the greatest freedom I could imagine. I wanted to do nothing more with my adult life than to leave the stasis of not-quite-London.

I am an all-or-nothing sort of person, and if I am to be forced out of my beloved zone two, it seems somehow better to leave the capital entirely. I am coming to wonder if it is not central London that I long for so much as simply to be near the centre of things, wherever that may be.

There was a fateful moment at my best friend’s wedding (yes, another one) recently, when what I should have said was, “Wine”, or even, “Nothing, thanks”, when what I actually said was, “Tequila”. The question, of course, was what I wanted from the bar.

I was on bridesmaid duty (yes, again) and didn’t feel quite myself in my satin dress and with my hair curled and braided (think Daenerys Targaryen, if Daenerys Targaryen had roots). I made up for this slight knock to my confidence by means of tequila. This was not, in itself, a problem – I had uproarious fun on the dancefloor. The problem was that far too much of proceedings were recorded, to be relived, to my shame, the next morning, and forevermore. If I ever get married, there will be a no-mobile-phones-on-the-dancefloor rule.

At dinner I was seated between two single groomsmen (no uncertainty as to what the bride was trying to do there). One of them, I discovered, has done away with the concept of a flat altogether and lives in a van. Perhaps I will soon do the same.  

[See also: I’m moving house again – and moving away from my old, hurt self too]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink