Some Essex commuter towns are seeing dramatic increases in property prices, according to the latest Land Registry figures reported in the Guardian last week.
And it’s not the fake-bake-and-toy-poodles golden triangle of west Essex either. Go further around the M25, keep going through the Range Rovers and TOWIE tours of Brentwood and you’ll arrive in Thurrock, a swathe of semi-rural and estuary industrial Essex, bisected by the A13.
Home of the Port of Tilbury, the super-port of DP World London Gateway and the former Coryton Refinery (soon to re-open as the Thames Oil Port), Thurrock has seen a 17.2% rise in house prices since February 2015. Why?
Aside from the general increase in property prices in anywhere that’s vaguely within commuting distance of London, as a former resident, I can speculate on a few reasons behind the sudden surge in Thurrock property prices.
Boom and bust
Between about 2002 and 2008, some of Thurrock’s commuter towns, such as Purfleet, Tilbury and Grays, saw a huge increase in residential development.
A lot of this was on the back of the buy-to-let boom, and Purfleet, for example, was the site of at least three sizeable developments focused around one and two-bed flats aimed squarely at the BTL market. Until that point, Purfleet was a small town with virtually no amenities and little to recommend it apart from good transport links and proximity to Lakeside. Between 2005-2007, new build two bed flats were being sold for between £150,000 and £190,000, far in excess of what similar properties had previously sold for in the area.
You can probably see where this is going.
When the housing market collapsed in 2008, some BTL owners were reaching the end of their two year interest only mortgages. With a widening Loan To Value (LTV) gap, and a glut of near-identical properties driving down rental prices in the area (at that time in the region of £500-600pcm for a two-bed), flats intended to be let to well-paid City and Canary Wharf commuters instead sat empty.
Add to that the people who had stretched themselves and taken advantage of the vast number of dubiously-sold 100% mortgages prior to 2008, and the repossessions start trickling in.
But because the property market in Purfleet had previously been relatively small, lenders flogging off brand new flats for £60,000 tends to have quite an impact on the local market. Rinse and repeat in other nearby areas and you start to see depressed prices across a large part of the county.
Essentially, Thurrock is playing catch up in the property price stakes, so it’s cheap.
The pre-2008 boom was partially based around a planned regeneration of the riverside areas of Thurrock, not dissimilar to that planned for Barking Riverside. That plan was shelved in the teeth of a global recession and the area remained largely un-regenerated. Until this year.
The regeneration projects which have been sparking controversy across the capital while chipping away at our social and affordable housing are spreading outwards. A new regeneration is planned, which will create additional housing, parks and shops in Grays, Purfleet, West Thurrock and Tilbury.
The Thurrock area is also among the locations identified for the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, one of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s 13 new river crossings announced last year. Thurrock council and local residents are opposed to the plans.
A regeneration promising lots of chi-chi boutiques and restaurants, public spaces, and – bloody hell – a marina, fires people up with the fear that they might miss out on being in early on the next Docklands.
If not much else, Thurrock has great transport links. A combination of the M25, A13 and easy access to the A12 into London and A127 to Southend mean road users are spoilt for choice, though traffic jams are pretty much constant and you probably wouldn’t want to be a cyclist around there. On the plus side, you can see the QE2 bridge for miles around so you know well before you get there how much traffic there is on it.
Rail users get the air-conditioned c2c service which connects the outer reaches of Essex at Shoeburyness and Southend with Fenchurch Street. Grays is 45 minutes and Purfleet is a mere 35 minutes away. A season ticket from the latter is £324.90 per month.
Never underestimate how appealing a shortish commute can be for home hunters.
There’s actually not that much there
Let’s face it, Thurrock is unlikely to be in the top 10 most desirable places to live, at least in the near future. Other than Lakeside and Bluewater across the river, shopping is somewhat limited. Restaurants are mostly limited to pub grub and high street chains like Pizza Express.
The surrounding area is peppered with vast warehouses, scrapyards, industrial estates and disused factories. You’ll see more HGVs than pretty much anywhere outside of Dover.
In short, it ain’t pretty.
It also had the lowest levels of life satisfaction of any place in the UK, according to a 2015 government survey and a higher rate of deprivation.
Despite, but conversely because of all this, the ever-increasing circle of buyers looking for an affordable property within reasonable commuting distance of central London has finally rippled out to south Essex.
The conditions which have made this possible are obviously two sides of the same coin. An influx of property owners drives regeneration and previously undesirable areas come up. But what happens when the last commuter town becomes unaffordable for the people who have lived there for generations? The residents of Thurrock are likely to find out within the next few years.