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I wrote a little article for House & Home the other day on why I like renting, and it never occurred to me that it would generate so much comment. First my mum didn’t like the headline (“Rent Boy”), second came critiques from Lucy Kellaway, and more recently Ed Hammond. Then there was a curiously hysterical lady who wrote something on the message boards along the lines that “Ben Pentreath can only afford all this because he’s gay and doesn’t want children”, which was somewhat personal, and also inaccurate given that my four-bedroom house in Dorset would happily accommodate my family, if I had one. I reckon that same family would be pretty happy to have a nice two-bedroom flat in WC1. I can’t quite quote her accurately because a moderator eventually removed her witty gem, something she took the opportunity to complain about in a comment on the Lucy Kellaway column the following week. But it would have probably been truer for her to write “Ben Pentreath is too much of a workaholic to form a lasting relationship”, let alone make a family, but that’s a subject for another day.
A lot of people found the whole conversation a bit smug, which was unanswerable; and London-centric, which was equally true. Many people were apt to write “but he didn’t reveal his rent”, which merely means you don’t understand word counts, or how to keep the flow of prose (Dorset: £1,250, rising to £1,500 per month after five years, in part compensation for the improvements I made when I signed the long lease; London, currently £1,420 per month, which will also rise to about £1,820 per month on the same basis). A number of people were very cross that I hadn’t revealed the names of my landlords, which I’m still not going to do in print, but the readers who sent me an email with that question were promptly put in touch with the agents.
There was a lot of conversation about not being able to paint your walls the colour you want, which is something I’ve always been very surprised by (just paint your whole flat white at your own expense when you leave, which is cheaper than two days skiing – and you can live there how you want for five or ten years). The fear of people to make roots in rental houses is actually a fear of making roots generally. Which, in our transient, internet-surfing, restless lives, is a wider cultural problem; one that only, just for a start, equates meaning with ownership.
But of all the commentary, the one that niggled was a letter to the editor which read: “Sir, it is refreshing that Ben Pentreath prefers to rent his home in Dorset, and his London flat,” it began, “rather than buying a property and being saddled with debt. I wish him well, but does it really make sense for one person to occupy two homes in such ‘desirable’ areas when the country is suffering an acute housing shortage?”
Gosh. Well, This Reader had at least understood something that I think both Kellaway and Hammond, in their beautifully written pieces, had failed to pick up – one of the big reasons I rent is because, for me, it appears to be a lot cheaper than buying the equivalent house. And one of the reasons I’m interested in it being cheaper is because I want to live in two places. Doubtless, let’s face it, if I was putting £1,500 plus £1,820 into a London mortgage, I’d get somewhere solid in Camden, wouldn’t I?
That would be to neglect one small salient fact. I love living in two places at once. Which is why, as I say, of all the commentary, the one which I found most offensive was This Reader’s mean statement that my personal choice was somehow contributing to the housing shortage.
Let me explain. I am a Dorset boy. I was born in Dorchester, the county town. So in a sense, my living here is all to do with nurturing roots. One of the curious things about my Old Parsonage is that in the 1970s and early 1980s, my best friend Ben’s parents rented the house for about 15 years. I grew up in that house, a real home from home. So I have been curiously drawn back here my whole life, and it was amazing when I found myself in a position to rent, the house empty, and the landlord looking for a tenant.
My decision to have a West Country base is not pure nostalgia. I do a lot of work in Dorset. For years now, I’ve worked on Poundbury, Prince Charles’s urban extension of Dorchester, and we’re at present doing some quite big schemes in neighbouring Weymouth. Once a month, and most fortnights, I’m down for work for at least a couple of days. My house in Dorset is essential to my sanity in making these and other work visits, rather than always trekking back to London at the end of the day. Dorset is where I have my drawing board; it’s where I design buildings, and enjoy some quiet space to think, which is not always possible in the more frenetic pace of London.
It’s not just about work. Having two houses is what keeps me grounded. It’s a tradition that extends back as far as Pliny’s villas of ancient Rome; leaving the city; spending time in the country, deep in my garden, walking, or pottering up and down our beautiful coastline. Sometimes, I’m in Dorset alone for days at a time; sometimes my house is filled with friends and family. Many of the significant moments of my year are marked there. And there’s a richness to life in two places that I think is inestimable.
I am aware, of course, that this entire conversation is ready for submission to that brilliant meme “First World Problems”, otherwise known as White Whine. But there is something serious, and underlying about this. I presume that some of my critics do not sanction rich people taking up more room generally. Should one person occupy a large house, I wonder? (The government’s rather toxic-sounding “bedroom tax” touches rather uncomfortably to my mind on this precise issue).
There is a lot in the press about commuter villages, where the lights come on each Friday evening and go off on Sunday night. I made a personal choice, for sure, to avoid the grim tweeness of the Cotswolds, where every house is done up to the nines with Farrow & Ball paint and electric Agas, but I’m not sure that having a few second-home owners in a village isn’t an enriching thing. For a start, one of my most important roles in life is chairman of our village social club (elected three years in a row now, despite my desperation to stop). Frankly, I’m as scared by places where no outsiders are welcomed as by the villages where no locals can afford to live. Everything, presumably, is a question of balance.
A lot of my work, indirectly, is do with addressing the housing shortage; which has developed for many reasons – an ageing population; the increase in divorced households; the desire of young people to own their own homes. Quite a long way down the list (doubtless to the disappointment of Ukip) is immigration, and, very far down, foreign investors in London property – which receives a disproportionate amount of screaming time in the media. Second-home ownership doubtless plays its part too, but I’ve always found the English to be slightly hysterical on the subject.
Fundamentally, we’re not building enough homes in this country to keep up with demand. I could give up my life in Dorset, or, I suppose in London, but I don’t think that would solve a thing. Governments that control where you live, or how big your house is, haven’t tended to succeed, or indeed to make happy societies that I would like to live in. So for as long as I’m allowed, by government, I’d love to be allowed to work in London, but to be able to leave, and come to another house of my own, where I can rest my head in my own bed, and clear my mind, ready for another day.