One of the greatest challenges facing the UK Government is a lack of consumer confidence. We are all social animals; when those around us are spending, we follow suit. We go on holiday, eat out, spend on the high street and we keep the economy moving. But when those around us are tightening their belts, so do we. Once you get it going, confidence is a perpetual motion machine which can drive economic growth. Starting that machine, however, is a very difficult challenge.
Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty holiday, then, has been welcomed by a sector that needs a kickstart and there is good reason to think that it will work. Time-limited tax breaks are powerful tools to eliminate indecision because they answer the question – why now? Marketers and behavioural scientists alike know that making an action urgent is a sure-fire way to focus the mind on a decision. Perhaps even more important, however, is the phenomenon of loss aversion. We all feel the pain of financial losses more than we feel the pleasure of gains. It’s part of our DNA and makes us fundamentally risk adverse animals. For anyone looking to buy a house in the near future the prospect of losing out on £5k, £10k or £20k tax break is almost unbearable and that’s all the motivation consumers need to get buying.
So, while things are looking up for the sector, it’s with a cynical eye, that I have read the latest wave of stories about a post lockdown flight from the capital. Rightmove has seen Londoners looking further away from the capital since the stamp duty announcement and Zoopla reported a surge in demand for properties in the south coast during lockdown. It makes sense. Businesses and consumers alike are re-evaluating just how critical physical space is when we return from lockdown, tastes will certainly have changed.
But this is not a new prediction. Claims of London’s inevitable fall from grace have appeared with almost metronomic regularity for the past decade, churned out by flacks as well as hacks. The Telegraph, in 2017 reported on ‘The great exodus’ from UK cities, for instance, while a year later The Independent confirmed the news “Brexit and housing crisis combining to cause exodus from London.” It seems each economic crisis or cultural trend is conspiring to push Londoners to a more idyllic country existence.
It might come as a bit of a shock, then, to learn that we have been living through London’s comeback years. The fall of the British Empire, the devastation of WW2 and a ban on new office developments saw London lose almost a quarter of its population by the 1990s. Only in 2015 did the capital’s population pass its 1930’s heyday. While there are very good reasons to try and reduce London’s economic dominance, the property boom in the capital is built on solid foundations. As the HQ of a crucially important international legal framework, an English-speaking steppingstone to Europe and a financial services hub, London has a lot going for it. It’s even got trees.
But, as any good communicator will tell you, there is a tremendous difference between what people say and what they do. Lockdown has given us plenty of time to rekindle our obsession with “property porn”, and where better for Londoners to imagine themselves than in a large country house surrounded by miles (not meters) of personal space.
And that’s exactly why journalists will be delighting readers with “escape to the country” stories for years to come. The property pages aren’t about bricks and mortar at all, they are spaces to imagine ourselves in a different life – a life we might not ultimately choose. Every property campaign from the most ambitious experiential activation to the most technical press release needs to help its audience imagine a new chapter in their life. Even the house price index, that staple of mortgage media relations, has the power to leave readers feeling £10k richer and ready to spend. Therein lies the joy of communicating about property.
So, while the stamp duty changes are sure to give the sector the boost it desperately needs, I don’t think we’ll see a realignment of rural and urban living habits. I for one won’t be packing my bags and leaving London anytime soon, but I certainly will enjoy imagining it.