Left: one of the derelict houses in Cobridge, Stoke-On-Trent that is being sold by the council for £1. Right: 18 Carlton House Terrace in central London, which is being placed on the housing market with an expected price of £250m Photographs: Getty/EPA
News in austerity Britain is not short on grotesque juxtapositions, but there was one this week that was just so spectacular that it couldn't pass without comment. In the same week, terrace houses were expected to change hands in different parts of the country for £250m and £1. That, respectively, is the most expensive housing ever sold in the UK, and some of the cheapest, were it not for councils' occasional tendency to give council estates to developers for free. What sort of urban landscape is it that has such things occurring at once, and what sort of places are these that are so astonishingly disparate in asking price?
Terrace houses are a typology that is hailed as the one viable solution for housing by both rightwing thinktanks and right-thinking urban liberals, and one which is essentially legislated against by the police-organisedSecured by Design regulations that govern the construction of much new housing, recommending closed layouts with plenty of fences. You won't find that in either of these places, both of which are simple rows meeting a street. Both, also, were built in the 19th century, like so much of the British landscape. One was designed by a famous architect, John Nash, the other by anonymous builders, though both were from an era (and in Nash's case, an architect) notorious for jerry-building. The similarities end here, however. The one selling for £250m is 30 times the size of a normal London house, with 50,000 square feet of living space; the £1 houses are two- and three-bedroom houses for workers. The £250m house is in Carlton House Terrace, in central London; the £1 houses are in Stoke-on-Trent.
Carlton House Terrace is not one of those areas of inner London that have become a rich area only in the last two decades, but rather one of the grandest showpieces of Nash's speculative redesign of London under the Regency, the southernmost of his supposed improvements, reaching from here upwards through Regent Street to Regent's Park. Nash was heavily criticised in his day and after for preferring grandiose scenic effects over actual build quality, with cheap brick houses under the painted cream stucco, but now his developments are kept up to a sparkle by their astonishingly wealthy occupiers.
Meanwhile, Stoke-on-Trent has not ended up flogging its houses for a quid purely as the result of industrial decline and depopulation, but as the result of the attempt to renew its housing market. The terraces of Stoke were among the many that faced clearances under the Pathfinder scheme in the 2000s, where more introverted forms of housing for (relatively) wealthier residents were usually proposed to supplant them. In most places, this led to massive swaths of empty houses by the time the property boom collapsed; in some towns and cities, these are being put back into use rather than erased, which is all well and good. But in case anyone got the idea that this was to be a free-for-all, or – imagine! – a public housing initiative, Stoke have set certain conditions for exactly who is allowed to give them a quid. They must have been in work for at least two years, and they must have an income of at least £18,000 a year; each buyer will be allowed to borrow £30,000 from the council, to help complete repairs on the houses, which they will have to repay within 10 years at a 3% rate of interest. These may not sound like particularly onerous conditions, as the fact that hundreds have applied already attest, but in an area with extremely high unemployment, it selects, as did Pathfinder, a marginally better class of buyer.
Either way, for their single coin they get a normal Victorian terrace house a mile from the centre of Stoke. During a recession in the 70s, London boroughs started buying up derelict, and even non-derelict, housing for the purposes of doing them up and letting them to council tenants; this, typically, is the outsourced version.
Put these two sales together and you have a picture of a country whose housing crisis has become fantastically surreal and unbalanced, reflecting its increasingly bizarre economy – a capital kept ludicrously expensive by its status as a tax haven and financial centre, in a country whose urban heartlands in the north and Midlands have depopulated ever further. Remember, though, that Stoke is one of the towns to which beleaguered London local authorities are planning to send tenants and homeless families priced out of the capital. The price gap here is not a matter of paradoxical co-existence – rather of cause and effect.