A sideways look at economics

A friend recently advised me that when it comes to buying a house, you end up sacrificing one of three things — the impossible trinity of housing, if you like. Those three things relate to location, specification and price. Earlier this year, we compromised on the second, prioritising location above all else. At the time, we were emerging from lockdown and I remained hopeful that we’d be back to ‘normal’ before long. That meant that proximity to work (in London), friends and family took priority. But had I anticipated the second lockdown, and the permanent shift in working patterns with much more time likely to be spent working from home even once the pandemic has passed, would I have made the same decision?

I can think of a few other places where I would rather spend lockdown. One is picturesque South West England, and specifically the seaside town and fishing harbour of St Ives. Lockdown in this surfing and artists’ paradise would involve catching waves before breakfast and exploring the maze of narrow, cobbled streets at lunch.

Another popular destination, and one where I’m likely to spend a large amount of my time next year while my partner retrains as a furniture maker, is Kendal: a town in the Lake District in the North West of England that is famous for its romantic scenery and a peculiar piece of confectionary called Kendal mint cake — essentially a rock-hard tablet of pure sugar, which fuelled the first ascent of Mt Everest and remains a popular source of energy with mountaineers. Lockdown here is likely to involve roaming the fells and wild swimming in the lakes.

Admittedly, both locations are a considerable distance from where I recently bought in the southeast of England. Popular with commuters thanks to its mainline railway station, the otherwise sleepy village of Twyford offers those on lockdown one of the best Indian takeaways in the whole of the UK — a motivating factor behind our move, naturally.

For completeness, I also consider the university city of Durham in the North East of England, well known for its historic Norman cathedral and imposing 11th century castle. Lockdown here might involve exploring its abundance of English cultural heritage (assuming that at least some of the sites have remained open).Arguably, the perfect lockdown location demands much more than attractive views and excellent curries. Instead it’ll be determined by a whole host of factors, with the perceived importance of those factors likely to vary from person to person too. For me, those factors will relate to the desirability of things like:

1) Nearby green spaces: whether it be rolling fields or the distant sight of next door’s conifers at the bottom of the garden, greenery and ample outdoor space play an important role in mental wellbeing

2) Good weather: when your country is perennially cold and holds little else to do but visit garden centres and go for a walk, the average local temperature matters, even if there are just a few degrees in it

3) Community spirit: because I’d like to regain the kind of connectedness fostered by the Thursday evening NHS and key worker doorstep clap

4) Comfort: the availability of supermarket deliveries and Deliveroo orders help make lockdown palatable

5) Convenience: because banks and post offices – essential for some, less so others – are distinctly handy when trying to limit the ASOS-return walk of shame

6) Affordability: with staycations rising in popularity, escaping the same four walls could come at a price, and require some spare cash

7) Health: because it’s always preferable to avoid the latest COVID hotspot

The table below collates the data gathered for each of these factors. For example, we can see that there is considerably more public green space per person in St Ives than elsewhere, but when it comes to the average garden size, Twyford secures top spot — a position also reflected in the number of nearby garden centres. Accordingly, Twyford ranks first in two of these three variables.[1]

Kendal, in the Lake District, is (unsurprisingly) let down by its weather, with the lowest average temperature of all four locations and an average rainfall per annum that is almost double Durham’s. It doesn’t perform much better on the community front either, ranking in fourth place in the Co-op’s relationships and trust index, which measures ‘neighbourliness’ with metrics like the number of neighbourhood watch schemes, and household churn.

In terms of average internet speed, which also facilitates our sense of community and has proven vital in maintaining and building relationships in recent months, Kendal and Durham remain some way behind the South of England.

Deliveries from Morrison’s (the UK’s most popular supermarket according to YouGov) don’t suffer from a North/South divide, with availability in all four locations, even though the chain is headquartered in the North. Food delivery services from Deliveroo are yet to reach three out of four locations though, with only Durham lucking out.

In consequence of its much larger population, the city of Durham also boasts more banks and post offices than the village of Twyford and the seaside town of St Ives. Kendal gives it a good run for its money though, with more bank branches and the same number of post offices despite only being a third of Durham’s size in terms of population.

Kendal also performs well on the affordability front, with the price of an Airbnb property less than elsewhere, followed closely by St Ives (probably a consequence of the time of the year and fewer seaside tourists) and Twyford.

Last but not least is the number of Covid-19 cases as a proportion of the local population. Cornwall, compared to many other areas of England, has had relatively low levels of cases, with just 0.5% of the population having tested positive. The North has fared less well, including Kendal and Durham.

One way to aggregate these findings and determine the best lockdown location is to take the average rank across all variables, with the lowest value the winner, as shown at the bottom of the table. This method suggests that Twyford is in top place, followed by St Ives, Durham and finally Kendal. In other words, during lockdown at least, our decision to move to a sleepy suburb in the South East was the right one!


[1] Interestingly, Kendal, despite being surrounded by hills and moorland, does not score highly on the size of its town parks.