Does population drain indicate London price peak?

Does population drain indicate London price peak? (iStock)

Since 2016, the London property market has somewhat stalled, with both residential and commercial sectors slipping into the doldrums. Many have blamed the economic uncertainty caused by Brexit, but the real reasons may be more long-standing. 

Data provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been clear enough about the direction of travel; in particular, it has shown that while the overall UK population is still increasing and is now just over 66 million, growth has declined to the slowest rate since 2004. 

Immigration levels are down - an obvious consequence of Brexit - and this will have impacted more on a global city like London than the average locality. Head of the population estimates unit at the ONS Neil Park said: "The effect is most pronounced in London and other areas that have seen high levels of immigration in recent years."

However, property prices have also emerged as a key factor. The fact is that London's market is being impacted by an exodus of people seeking cheaper living. During the year to June 2017, a record 330,000 people moved out of the capital to somewhere else in Britain. A city that enjoyed the fastest regional growth rate in Britain in 2016 now had a net outflow of nearly 107,000.

This is no flight of EU citizens back to the continent, but chiefly people in their 30s and 40s with young families who desire more and better opportunities to move up the property ladder. 

Indeed, many of the most popular destinations were still in commuting distance, such as Brighton, Dartford, or the Essex districts of Epping Forest and Thurrock. Birmingham and Bristol also received a significant influx of ex-Londoners. 

Estate agency Knight Frank stated: "As well as a desire to trade up the housing ladder in search of more space, increased employment opportunities outside London means people are becoming more confident to make the move from the capital."

These motivations may go a long way towards explaining how London's property market has lost momentum. Brexit may prove to be a passing problem with the capital bouncing back, but issues like prices and the desire for space - the second being an issue that cannot be resolved through more high-density developments - there may be more long-term factors at play. 

All this may help explain how there is a major gulf between London and fast-growing cities with booming property markets like Manchester and Edinburgh. True, parts of the Scottish capital are very crowded and much of central Manchester may be too, but there is space in the suburbs and other lifestyle attractions such as proximity to fine countryside. Nor are their property markets at a point where a correction is due.

This need not, however, mean that the London property scene is written off. The immigration situation may be less certain than some imagine, not least as future policy, while necessarily no longer Euro-centric, may be more amenable to high-skilled immigration from other countries. Moreover, investors in London may find that they simply need to focus on particular key markets that will continue to do well, rather than simply assuming the whole of the capital will be a boom town in the way it was until recently.