Cast your mind back to February, just four months, yet another lifetime ago, and Emily Harvey was a committed urbanite. Her PR job meant she enjoyed long lunches in the latest London restaurants, while weekends were spent at hot yoga classes, pop-up farmers’ markets and museums with her five-year-old daughter, Alice.
Lockdown obviously put paid to all that, but just as it eases, she and her family are fleeing the capital for good.
“We took a rental in the Cotswolds during lockdown and when we returned after 12 weeks, London was like a scene from [the horror film] 28 Days Later, with everyone in masks,” she says. “After a blissful time spent in the countryside we realised we didn’t want to be in a cramped, frantic city any more.”
The couple put their house in Balham, southwest London, on sale as soon as the housing market reopened in mid-May, accepted an offer after a week, and are in the process of buying a property in an Oxfordshire village.
“Coronavirus changed everything, and right now feels like the window to make our move,” Harvey adds. “I will miss the conveniences of London and being close to siblings, but so many of my friends now want to leave, too.”
Thousands of ‘panic movers’ are quitting cities for rural or village locations, acting now before the economy plummets into recession and the housing market stalls.
Savills has seen a 90 per cent increase in demand from house hunters for country locations in the past three months compared to the same period last year, while an analysis of offers accepted on properties across Britain by Hamptons International shows that since April, 41 per cent of city-based buyers bought a home in a town, suburb or countryside location – up from 17 per cent in 2019 and an average of only 5 per cent during the last decade.
“Lockdown measures have definitely made people reassess the location and type of home they want to live in,” says Aneisha Beveridge, the agency’s head of research.
Demand for flats to rent and buy has plummeted, according to the property portal Rightmove, while estate agents in coveted rural locations such as the Cotswolds, the Chilterns and the South Downs are reporting a surge in inquiries from urbanites, as are those in prime coastal spots in Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk.
Londoners are also moving to Northumberland, according to Jason Roberts, head of Morpeth at Strutt & Parker estate agency. “The appeal of fresh air, more space and, crucially, fewer people per square mile has grown immeasurably,” he says. Savills has even received inquiries from people looking to buy on remote Scottish islands.
Some of these panic movers have set wildly optimistic deadlines of being in a new country home by the school ‘holidays’, while others are buying properties that they have never actually seen in the flesh: UK Sotheby’s International Realty sold three houses during lockdown after the buyers viewed them online.
Though some city slickers are proving hard to please: “We’ve had a surprising amount of requests for natural swimming pools and borehole water,” says Caroline Edwards, head of Suffolk at Carter Jonas estate agency. “I think it’s because north London buyers, in particular, are used to swimming in Hampstead Heath ponds.”
There have always been trade-offs to living in a city, but the lockdown and its ripple effects seems to have tipped the balance for many: why live in a cramped house with a small garden if you can no longer enjoy the benefits that once outweighed them? Theatres are still shuttered, and even when some pubs and restaurants open again next weekend, they will have to be booked weeks, if not months, in advance.
Not least, the coronavirus has called into question the need to commute to a city desk job five days a week. Many firms — including large employers such as Barclays, Facebook and Google — have said working from home will become the norm, while Twitter has said it will allow employees to work remotely permanently. There is a growing consensus that the legacy of lockdown will be a workplace revolution — and, as a result, many urbanites are looking to move farther and faster than they would ever have considered previously.
Chantel Elshout, 39, and her husband, Michael Craig, 45, are banking on a home-working revolution. The couple are renting out their five-bedroom home in Clapham, southwest London, so that they and their children Whitney, five, and Gaige, two, can move to the Cotswolds, on the double.
“We started planning to move out of London at the beginning of this year, but initially were looking at places like Weybridge and Esher, in Surrey, which were a quick commute into central London for Michael, who works in finance,” says Elshout, owner of an eponymous kitchen and interior design consultancy.
“Then the pandemic hit and everyone seems to agree it has ushered in a new way of working remotely. This has made a big difference to us in terms of where we can live and how we can live — we can now move much farther afield because Michael won’t have to go to the office so often.”
Many worry an exodus of middle-class professionals from cities and large towns will only exacerbate the divide that was brought into sharp relief by the pandemic.
For those in rural properties with plenty of space and a car, lockdown probably meant more quality time with the family, a spot of DIY and perhaps learning to bake sourdough; the two-metre rule never really became an issue on country walks. For those crammed into small homes in urban areas with no outside space and no option but to take public transport, being confined was a completely different story.
“Lockdown in a small flat in the centre of Manchester has been hard,” says Dan Smith, 25, an accountant. “I have to work in my bedroom hunched over on my laptop because I live in a flatshare and my flatmate was also working from home. Taking exercise in the park is difficult because it is so busy. During the hot weather being in the city centre was almost unbearable, though I’m luckier than most — in my block of flats there are families of five or even six squeezed into a two-bedroom home with no balcony.”
Worries about high crime rates in large urban centres — the Reading terrorist attack and last week’s riots in Brixton and stabbings in Glasgow make for grim headlines — are also fuelling many panic movers’ desire to get out.
“Fear makes us feel like we need to act right now to create more safety, and at the moment ‘more safety’ might seem like more space, fewer people, maybe even a simpler life,” says the England football team’s psychologist Dr Pippa Grange, whose new book, Fear Less, is out next month.
While some are planning to cut ties with the city entirely, others are in search of a suburban idyll. Gemma Shah, 35 a communications executive who has lived in Brixton since 2008, is now on the hunt for somewhere within striking distance of Zone 1, but with all the benefits that come with living on the city-fringes.
“The week before lockdown, I decamped to my sister’s in Hampton Hill for more space and company because I live alone. I was there for ten weeks, and just completely fell in love with it,” says Shah. Daily walks in the 5,000 acre park near her sister’s home made her realise her local park’s more modest 100 acres wasn’t giving her the sense of space she craved, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.
“Walking around my park, you’re sharing it with so many people it’s like navigating traffic just walking around. There were moments in Bushy Park where I felt like I was the only one there if I was up and out early enough.”
Shah had always assumed that starting a family would prompt any move from central London, but lockdown means she is doing it for herself: “not because I have to but because I want to”.
For all the talk of an urban exodus, perhaps we shouldn’t sound the death knell for cities just yet. “The highest-skilled, highest-paid jobs, such as software developers, finance professionals and consultants, prefer city-centre locations,” Professor Richard Florida, a leading commentator on cities based at the University of Toronto, has said. “Proximity plays a central role in these industries: it sparks innovation and it offers young people the opportunity to build a network and move up the career ladder. This means that, despite the pandemic, young people in particular will still move to cities in search for job opportunities.”
Indeed, Smith says many of his friends plan to stay in Manchester – though he plans to rent somewhere just outside.
“I want to move now to somewhere less crowded in case there is a second wave of Covid-19 and we have to go into lockdown again,” he says. “I can’t see the point of paying a premium to rent in the city centre when the ‘new normal’ in pubs doesn’t exactly sound appealing, and I have no idea when I can go clubbing again. Urban life has definitely lost its charm for me.”