Welcome to my recap of The UK’s Best Place to Live, and how rankings have changed since it aired. Property expert Sarah Beeny presented this rundown of criteria first-time buyers should consider when choosing their location.
I paid close attention to the Channel 4 show when it aired as I was fighting to raise a deposit for a home close to family in the South East. I thought I was doing all the right things at work to earn more in future and I was constantly looking for ways to save.
Renting in London made me feel at first like I might never close the gap between my deposit, my ideal house and a mortgage. (I wasn’t even convinced anyone would give me a mortgage until I made some changes).
I got to a point where I was open to moving almost anywhere if it was affordable. Croft land in Scotland? Sure, I’ve also wanted a view. An ex-student house on the edge of Leeds? Well, I guess I could change jobs! A derelict house in Coventry? Backbreaking projects for the win. If I couldn’t live near relatives anyway then I may as well live somewhere cheap.
Watching this really helped me pick the three things that were super important to me and to decide the number one thing that was non negotiable. I’ll cover how I was able to buy in my desired location in the end, but I hope this recap brings you new ideas and helps you decide YOUR best place to live.
What’s your criteria?
“The UK’s best place to live” changes year to year. The best place isn’t really about one magical town that makes everyone happy. The ideal location is really about understanding what questions we should ask ourselves while saving for a deposit. This programme is still useful a few years later in helping decide what to think about when looking at properties for the first time.
The show is broken into the following priorities:
- The best location for a good wage to property ratio
- The best location for cheap property
- The best location for employment opportunities
- The best location for business opportunities
- The best location for the highest wellbeing
- The best location for entertainment/culture
- The best location for raising children
I’ve also covered:
- Why statistics are often wonky
- The final scoreboard
- Where’s the UK’s Best Place To Live 2020
- Where was the best place to live in the UK in 2019
- The worst place to live
- Key questions when choosing a place to live
Why location is so important
As Kirstie and Phil would say on Location, Location, Location, you can often change a house, but not the area. Buying a sorry specimen in a spanking neighbourhood that ticks your lifestyle boxes is better than buying your dream interior in a location that sucks.
The other reason location is so important is because millions of renters have had to abandon an obsession with wanting to one day buy in London. The value you get, if you could afford a home there in the first place, has driven lots of city cats to look outside London and think outside the box. This leaves plenty of us thinking ‘Where on Earth will I live?’ Literally.
Sarah said in the intro to this one-off that despite higher than average wages and an economy that rivals some countries, London is so expensive that there are places that provide better wellbeing. This is also especially true if renting in cramped houseshares, or if we can only afford to buy a one bed studio but want to have kids. London now actually loses people at a rate quicker than graduates flock there.
If you don’t want to rent forever/couldn’t give a flying squirrel about London, then you’re going to need to make friends with a map and property websites. Unless you want to hole up at your parents for your entire adult life? Didn’t think so.
The Best Location For A Good Wage To Property Ratio
The show’s first solution for the UK’s best place to live is to go where the wage to property ratio is good. A couple housesharing in Clapham Common found they could afford their dream home in East Dumbartonshire, Scotland. A five bed detached with double garage, garden etc was going for around £300k. This would still have been well over budget for me, but then again I don’t need a five bedroom house.
The same house in Clapham Common would be over £900k. Or they could get a two double bedroom flat for £100000 in East Dumbartonshire. They met up with a teacher living in a four bed house. This would be impossible on a teaching salary in the south.
The local stats:
- Hiking trails nearby run up into the Highlands
- Glasgow is 20 minutes by train and monthly season tickets were under £100 when the show aired
- Monthly zone 1-4 tickets were nearly £200 to Glasgow
- Disposable income is higher in Scotland than in London and the rest of the UK because the house prices to wages ratio is so good
The last is because wages have stayed stable, but the property market hasn’t exploded like the rest of the UK.
Elsewhere in Scotland
Edinburgh has higher wages than the UK average (about double), low costs for a city, more libraries per person than any city in the world, and the highest ratio of trees to people of any UK city. Perfect if books and oxygen are high on your priority list.
Sarah said the weather isn’t bad because it rains less than in New York and Rome on average… I need higher average temperatures personally in order to function.
I’ll add that if you are intrigued by Scotland, you could also buy land and a prefab for far less than other parts of the UK. There’s an example of this in another Sarah Beeny show called How to Live Mortgage Free. I’ve recapped this too, so join the mailing list if you want to know when it’s ready to read.
The Best Location For The Cheapest Houses
Copeland in Western Cumbria was the only local authority in England the show found where you could buy a house for less than three times the local average salary. The average house price was £116500 in early 2017, where average meant a three bed home with amazing views. (Prices increased in 2018 and then dropped again in 2019 as far as I can tell).
The best place to live in the UK for the cheapest house was the historic port town of Whitehaven between Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness.
Near the lakes/mountains
On the coast
There’s a harbour and a nuclear plant for jobs
There wasn’t much else locally for employment, but coronavirus has made remote working a strong possibility for more people going forward. (I recommend it!)
Worldwide, populations move from the countryside to the cities, but in the UK we do it in reverse. I think you have to ask how remote is too isolated though. Whitehaven sounds idyllic if you like hiking and walks by the water.
What if you can’t work locally?
Would your current employer allow you to work remotely permanently?
If the answer’s no, does the answer change if you commuted part time?
Could you work from home if you started your own business?
Could you combine commuting with extreme frugality so that you can retire early and make the commute irrelevant?
Or is the solution up next the one for you?
The Best Location For Employment Opportunities
Local employment is classed as good when there’s a broad range of jobs in case you want to switch careers, but also the least amount of competition.
The show found Cambridge had the least competition with ten times more vacancies advertised than applicants because of the universities and tech companies.
Sunderland had the most competition.
Kevin was living in Talgarth, Wales. He couldn’t get a job with a First degree in computer game enterprise from the University of South Wales in Cardiff because tech jobs were missing there. The show introduced him to a company in Cambridge instead.
Cambridge house prices were double versus Talgarth and high in relation to wages. However, the average wage was £35000, or £8000 above the national average, so he could get a well paid position that didn’t exist at home.
Again, coronavirus will likely make living close to work less and less of an issue. I predict the UK’s best place to live for employment in future will be wherever your home office is and all the other criteria will become more important.
The Best Location For Business Opportunities
A record number of businesses were being started at time of filming. Again I think this is hyper relevant in 2020 and beyond. While certain businesses freaked the fudge out because of the economic consequences of lockdown, lots of individuals used this as an opportunity to strike out alone.
The Legatum Prosperity Index rated Bristol best for business because of broadband speeds, entrepreneurial activity, infrastructure and business survival rates.
Lots of hubs for self-employed to work from
Small and therefore well-connected
Demographic is young
Lots of languages are spoken in Bristol so it’s diverse
The cycling capital of the UK
I expect the many languages is an asset to many businesses too (as in London). Since Bristol is the UK’s cycling capital, doing business there is good for your health and the environment! Don’t forget, Edinburgh has more trees per person though… The UK’s best place to live if you want to go green might actually be Edinburgh if you get a bike to whiz past all that greenery.
The Best Location For Wellbeing
It’s all very well being rich if you strike gold as an entrepreneur, but what about wellbeing?
Wellbeing is precisely about what money can’t buy: happiness, contentment and a sense of belonging. The highest levels of wellbeing were in Northern Ireland according to the ONS. Belfast has changed a lot since the troubles. Only 1 in 4 mainland Brits would call their neighbours a good friend, so you might borrow more sugar in the Belfast suburbs where a three bed detached was £170000.
What’s their secret I wonder? Not just house prices, otherwise the people of Whitehaven would be living The Life of Riley as Buffy would say. Scroll up if you missed that part. (Yes, I mean Buffy the vampire slayer. No, she didn’t appear in this programme. She’s more likely to burn a house down than anything else).
They didn’t dig into why Northern Ireland was the UK’s best place to live except that the locals think it’s friendly. Does someone want to let Harry Styles know the place he’s looking for already exists?
The Best Location For Entertainment/Culture
I wanna write you a song… If you’re looking for entertainment and culture, Manchester was our music capital with 87 gigs per 100 people in 2016. This was double the gigs in Glasgow (the nearest rival with 44 shows).
I was supposed to see the aforementioned Mr. Styles in concert recently, but it’s been postponed until 2021 due to coronavirus. Manchester was going to be one of his gig stops. Livestreaming has filled the void a bit, but I expect going to shows in person will still have huge entertainment value in future.
One of the largest student populations in the UK
Lots of well-paid, high-skilled jobs
Average house prices were £168000
Buses and trains were rated best in the UK for quality
If you don’t click with Manchester, but want a good value property near a music scene, then don’t forget the houses in example one in East Dumbartonshire weren’t far from Glasgow. That way you can have the best of best worlds if you like to go out, but don’t want to be in a city full time.
The Best Location For Raising Children
When your aim is more The Kids Are Alright and less This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin, then the UK’s best place to live hinges on childcare.
In Surrey, Sarah spoke to Luke. He had to work seven days a week as a personal trainer to save for his son’s childcare and to rent an overpriced flat with partner Katie. Nursery was going to be £85 per day when Katie returned to work as a marketing manager. (They’re not the only couple who’ve ended up paying to work. How did we get here?)
The show found the South East was most expensive for childcare after London.
Lowest childcare costs were in Yorkshire and Humberside.
In Sheffield the average house price was £178000 vs nearly £500000 in Epsom, Surrey.
Very close to the countryside (contrary to popular belief!)
94% of residents were within 4km of the 20 hectacre wood
Next door to the Peak District
Childcare was £40-60 per day
Why Statistics Are Often Wonky
All these stats don’t give the full picture though.
If looking at the best place to live in England for schools, then school ratings can be a bit misleading as a measure. These usually directly correlate with an area being wealthy.
Life expectancy statistics are misleading too because they also depend on an area being wealthy. In Kensington and Chelsea life expectancy is 80+, but in the East End of Glasgow it’s high 50s/lows 60s. (You can go out kicking and dancing because of the local music scene though).
What if I already convinced you to move to East Dumbartonshire?
You won’t die young suddenly if you move there because these statistics reflect the education and wealth of someone’s parents, and give you a better idea of the standard of living 30 years ago than now.
Taking income and house prices to earnings ratios as the two most important factors, the show’s Dr Ray concluded that high housing prices made London and the South East WORST to live. They also took into account availability of jobs and affordability. More on this below since the South East is my domain.
They declared Stafford, Derby, Blaby, Rugby and Warwick all relatively affordable for an industrial urban area.
The Final Scoreboard
Remember what I said about there not being one magical town that ticks all boxes? They do exist, but they’re usually so obscure that you wonder how they satisfied all the critieria. Drumroll please for the show’s final leaderboard…
The UK’s best place to live: by region
The North West had 8 out of the top 20 places.
Warrington was the second best place to live because of transport links and cheap houses.
The gold medal winner
South Ribble was the best place to live in the UK. I’d never heard of it, but it’s near Preston in Lancashire. The average house price was £157000.
South Ribble scored highly for:
Close to cities with broad range of jobs (e.g. Manchester, Liverpool)
Schools rated good/outstanding
Local jobs because lots of businesses had moved to the town
In an eight year period as many jobs were created there as in Manchester and Liverpool.
Perhaps the point is it wouldn’t be a winner if everyone had heard of South Ribble. If we all rushed to move there, then the house prices would likely distort as a result.
Where’s The UK’s Best Place To Live 2020?
According to the Halifax Quality of Life Survey via House Beautiful, this is East Hertfordshire.
London appears nowhere in the top 25, but nine places in the South East do. In fact, the South East cropped up the most in the top 50. This is contrary to Dr Ray on the show. Other mentions from the programme like Rugby and Warwick are in the top 25 also. The Midlands fared next best as a region.
South Cambridgeshire is at number 13, so gamers can rejoice if they still want to be near Cambridge.
Also following on from the show, Edinburgh fared well as the best Scottish location in the Sunday Times Best Places to Live 2020.
They also favour Altrincham in Greater Manchester (any music lovers reading?) and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland, so these locations continue to stand out.
Where Were The Best Places To Live In The UK 2019?
According to the Sunday Times’ annual report, Salisbury had a revival, despite all that negative press in 2018 over poison(!).
Of the other places on the list I was impressed with property prices in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Dundee, and Crickhowell in Wales.
Property in Topsham, Devon costs a fortune, and the prices in the Isle of Dogs were relative. It’s “cheap” for London which means most of us could stretch to a houseboat if we’re lucky. (I have got a blog post on houseboats and alternative living coming up too. Subscribe at the bottom of this post for that).
A few of the supposed best places to live didn’t even have any properties for sale on Zoopla, so I’m a bit baffled as to how that’s useful to anyone, let alone a first-time buyer.
It just goes to show that you have to have a look around and not get too attached to Top 10 lists. Orkney was also highlighted and appears in the Halifax’s 2020 top 25 again. I’ve been to Orkney which was fine for a holiday, but it’s very far from everything and summer was still far too fresh for a southern softie like me.
I Live In The UK’s Worst Place
Delving into the best AND worst places to live in the UK is unfair on the residents happily going about their life in the “worst” places.
I should know, my county often comes up on worst place lists, and also makes appearances on best place lists. Who do you believe??
I was able to buy a house close to family after all, which means I became a first-time buyer in the dreaded South East. Or is the South East a dream location? It depends on the list!
My wage to property ratio definitely wasn’t good by any definition while renting in London. I still managed to get a mortgage and save many tens of thousands on a single income, so it turned out not to be impossible either.
If you want to know how I achieved the near impossible, read How I Saved Half My Wages For A Deposit While Renting in London.
Everything is relative, so while I don’t have lots of bedrooms, the house is generous compared to the size of new builds. I have a double frontage, two parking spaces, a front garden and I’m semi-detached, so I didn’t feel like I was getting a bad deal for the area.
I hadn’t compromised on location in the slightest. The town I chose had to have all the following:
Be within 30 minutes of my parents by car (with more than one driving route)
Walking distance to trains, shops and entertainment
On a main commuter route if I wanted to work in London or other major towns
A decent pub*
I spent a lot of time looking at Zoopla, train timetables and Google Maps in order to satisfy this criteria.
So what’s the catch?
I downsized from my childhood plans.
I’ve written about the thought process behind vetoing larger houses in What You Need To Get The Best Mortgage Offer.
Read that post and you might have a different view afterwards of the five bedroom houses in East Dumbartonshire.
I also bought a fixer upper.
Subscribe at the bottom of this page if you’re thinking of doing the same because I have an opus coming all about that.
Once I calculated that I would have to live over an hour away to get more house for my money, it became obvious that I needed to obey Kirstie and Phil and prioritise location over house size.
The best place for me is not the best place for everyone! Likewise if you google “the UK’s best place to live”, you’ll get very different answers from very different sources. For this programme they singled out most places by one priority. Rankings are created by balancing a number of factors. I didn’t check the air quality levels in my new town, and I bet the majority of buyers would never even think of this. Yet it’s one of the deciders used in some rankings.
Key Questions When Choosing A Location:
What’s the maximum distance you want to be from your closest family?
Are you happy to drive/cycle a lot if public transport is lacking?
Or would you be happy on the train if the local roads are often gridlocked?
Will you still be happy on the train if it’s regularly full/delayed/cancelled?
If you’re used to walking everywhere, could you switch to a bike/scooter to help you get around somewhere more spread out?
Could you work anywhere? What would it take to make your career location-independent?
Does it cost less to to buy than rent over a lifetime in the location you like?
Would your deposit go further somewhere less trendy?
Remember you don’t pay interest on your deposit, so it’s worth moving down the road if it puts you in a better LTV bracket. Read more about this in The Number One Thing No One Tells You About Saving For A House.
Are there opportunities to buy small/run-down and redesign later?
Would you rather pay upfront for other people’s renovation work?
How will you make new friends locally?
Will you be able to attend events you go to elsewhere annually?
I didn’t want to be too far from London because there are certain things I used to do there without fail every year…One event I often go to on consecutive days, but that doesn’t mean I want to start forking out to stay in hotels. But these events have all been postponed due to coronavirus, so we’ll see how this criteria changes! Perhaps I should have moved to Orkney after all?
The Ultimate Question
Will these answers be different in a year or less than five years?
The best place to live is often somewhere you can stick down roots for at least five years.
So what do you think? Would you rather have a cheap house or the best work and business opportunities? Do you improve your wellbeing by prioritising a location where childcare is cheapest, or entertainment is on tap, or should we all move to Belfast? What did answering the key questions above reveal to you? Will you search for property in any of the locations listed? Let me know in the comments!
You want to plan to stay in a property for longer than five minutes if you’re going to go through all the associated kerfuffle. Obviously none of us are psychic either, so if you buy somewhere then get thrown a curveball, it’s not the end of the world if you have to move or let.
If thinking about saving a deposit keeps you up at night, jump on the mailing list where I’ll be sending out weekly tips to boost your income and your savings. It’s the best way to make sure you don’t miss any more posts like this also, as I’ll be rounding up what’s new on the blog.