When Covid first hit, Jack Battersby, residential sales manager at Taunton’s Wilkie May & Tuckwood estate agents, set up in his spare room and fretted that lean times were ahead.
“It didn’t turn out like that. Business has been great,” said Batttersby as his desk phone rang constantly and messages pinged on his mobile. “We’re getting customers from all over – people from London and the south-east who since Covid are working from home so they might as well be here, but also people moving from places like Bristol and Exeter because they get more for their money.”
Battersby was not surprised to see Somerset’s county town topping the Halifax’s UK house price growth table, with a 21.8% increase to £315,759. “There’s brilliant countryside all around but we’re also well connected.”
Taunton is surrounded by high ground – Exmoor, the Quantock Hills, the Blackdown Hills – and the surfing beaches of north Devon and Cornwall are easy to reach. But the town is also just an hour’s drive from Bristol and by rail London Paddington is less than two hours away.
Hannah Thomas, a negotiator at another estate agency, Greenslade Taylor Hunt, said properties were snapped up within days. “It’s been a mad year in a good way,” she said. Thomas said families were keen to move into neighbourhoods on the edge of town in good catchment areas such as Trull, where an end-of-terrace Victorian cottage is on the market for £350,000.
“We’re also getting larger families moving in, for example three generations living together in a larger house. People seem to be looking for different ways of living.”
Another reason for the property boom, according to Thomas, is the new nuclear power station Hinkley Point C, which is being built on the Somerset coast 17 miles north of Taunton. Some employees who will be there for a while are buying homes, while investors are hunting houses to rent out rooms to temporary workers.
Taunton is also attracting retirees. Quantock House, for example, has apartments for the over-55s who can enjoy an in-house bistro, treatment rooms and balconies with views to the hills.
Hundreds more homes are being built as developers try to meet the demand. But this is causing disruption, puncturing the quiet that incomers crave. “The constant building and shutting down roads for the construction traffic is a pain,” said Nicky Heal, who owns Nicky’s Flower Studio.
Chris Birch, who runs the upmarket ready meals shop, Cook, said he had moved from Surrey for the quiet life but warned Taunton was not perfect, reeling off the shops that have shut recently, including a large Debenhams department store. There has not yet been a boom in businesses such as trendy coffee bars that incoming Londoners might like. “Who would invest at the moment?” said Birch.
And anyone hoping for a cutting edge arts scene might find Taunton wanting. The town has a theatre and arts complex, Taunton Brewhouse, but few would claim hipness for the town. The tourist information centre flags up its flower show (est 1831) before its nightlife. Taunton has no top flight football or rugby club, though the town’s skyline is dominated by the floodlights of the country cricket ground.
There are also losers from the booming property market. Charities who work with the homeless have reported a very busy Christmas getting emergency supplies out to the most vulnerable and the rising property prices are making it harder for younger people and those in poorer-paid employment to get on the property ladder.
Concerns are growing that local people could be pushed out by the rising prices – as they have been in places like Bristol and further west like St Mawes in Cornwall.
Gross weekly pay in Somerset is £567 compared with £577 in the south-west as a whole and £613 in Great Britain. Figures released by the government in the summer revealed that more than 20,000 families in the south-west were made homeless or threatened with losing their homes during the first phase of the pandemic.
Somerset West and Taunton council acknowledges that lack of affordable housing is an issue in the area and is aiming to build 1,000 new council homes in the next 30 years . It has also drawn up a plan to end rough sleeping by 2027 and has taken steps to try to tackle the problem such as leasing out affordable accommodation to medical students at a new development called Coal Orchard in the town.
Property hunting in Taunton on Wednesday were the Procter family from Berkshire. Dad Peter said he, his wife and two young children were looking for a change of scene.
“It feels too busy where we live,” said Procter. “I could work from home and could get into the office in London once or twice a week if we lived here. It will be a bit of extra effort for me but it will mean we all have much fresher air, a slower way of life, which I think most people need just now.”