And guess what? We’re not short of houses either…

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One website alone lists four hundred homes in the Ashford area for sale

We showed you yesterday hard evidence of how ridiculous it is to claim that the Ashford area is short of space for commercial development. But offices and labs are only part of Wye Park, of course. An important element in Imperial College’s get-rich-quick plan is the creation of thousands of new homes on virgin, protected farmland… and what’s the betting they turn up before anything else does, because that is where the easy money is supposed to be?

But is it? Ashford has been earmarked for 31,000 new homes over the next thirty years — largely because John Prescott, when he still had a real job, decided we needed them. What no-one has yet explained adequately is where the people, the jobs, the schools and the infrastructure to fill all these little boxes will come from. Instead we get the chicken and the egg argument… Imperial must be allowed to build homes, because the people coming to staff their new science park need somewhere to live.

This presupposes that the existing housing stock — which is already being supplemented by the huge existing expansion programme each year — is already groaning under the strain of being a boom town. So is there the slightest grain of truth in this idea? Read on…

You can get a very quick picture of the Ashford housing market online by visiting the various estate agencies who tout local properties over the web. And here’s the truth: if you have the money, the place is positively dripping in homes for sales.

Take a look at a search for Ashford on Fish4.uk. At first we did a double take, because Fish4 is just one website. But yes…it really does list four hundred Ashford properties hunting buyers on the market.

Want to know what kind of prices they are going for? Go to housepricemaps.co.uk here and either type in Ashford or a specific post code. To locals who’ve been here a couple of decades, and anyone with a local job trying to get into the property market, these probably look pretty high. But there are plenty of homes around under the £125,000 mark, and that’s not something you can say of many other places in the south east labelled by the government as a fancy boom area. If you are thinking of moving from London or even anywhere along the M4 corridor, the Ashford area looks like a positive paradise of cheap, readily available housing, some of it in lovely locations (provided a developer doesn’t land on your doorstep).

The South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) are backing the idea that we need 31,000 new homes and 28,000 jobs in Ashford over the next thirty years. But, like John Prescott, they are remarkably vague about where these jobs are to come from. Imperial’s science park? Not at all. That is on top of this estimate. Is it possible these numbers are simply pie in the sky stabs in the dark? And if so, are we heading for a property implosion by building vast acres of commercial and residential development that will never be filled?

Nothing coming out of the planning process, notably through Kent County Council, offers any hard facts to support this vast influx of population. In fact, the numbers game played by people like Pete Raine seems to bob up and down week to week. And SEEDA, remember, is the organisation that laid its commitment to Ashford on the nail by buying the International House complex in the centre of town… then resolutely failing to fill it, at a cost currently to the UK taxpayer of £10m. Do you trust their sums — even if you were allowed to see them?

If 28,000 new jobs turn up in Ashford, we will be short of housing. But at the moment there is not the slightest sign of such an influx, which is why International House is struggling for tenants. So what is the truth about this booming, overheated housing market which Imperial wishes, in its altruistic way, to fill?

Here are some simple facts from the latest Halifax price index for the south east. Remember: housing prices are largely a question of supply and demand. The more homes are on the market looking for buyers, the lower the price inflation will be. The bigger the rises, the harder it is to find a home.

Over the last five years Ashford’s house price inflation has, according to the Halifax, been among the lowest in Kent, with average house price rises of 45 per cent, compared with 104 per cent for Folkestone and 96 per cent for Dover. Yes, these were places starting from a low base. But it’s the same at the top of the scale too; Sevenoaks, one of the most expensive parts of the county, managed to put in a 78 per cent rise over that period too, while trendy Whitstable rose by 85 per cent.

And over the last year Ashford house prices have actually fallen by two per cent, while those in Canterbury rose by nine per cent for example. You will find the full details at the foot of this article. They do not back up the idea that this area is desperately short of housing at the strategic level. In Wye itself it’s a little different of course, because it is a hotspot where lots of people want to live — even with Imperial’s monster hanging over their heads. That doesn’t alter the simple fact: in housing supply terms, Ashford as an area is well endowed already.

What will happen if the current programme of house building goes ahead — even without Imperial adding to it? House price deflation in the area will continue, and worsen if Wye Park adds to the stock. In fact there are probably already people moving into new estates who may find, a few years down the road, that their homes are worth less than they paid for them.

Not that this will matter to the builders or the developers of course. Because by then the cash will be in the bank.

Halifax house price report first quarter south east 2006

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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