If the UK’s economic recovery gains traction, then one thing is sure: West Berkshire – along with other centres of high-tech industries such as Cambridge and Shoreditch, east London – will be part of its engine room. The region has all the elements necessary for success. Companies such as Vodafone and its cluster of mobile phone-related businesses have their headquarters there; nearer to Reading, Cisco, Microsoft, ING Direct, Oracle, Prudential, and Ericsson all provide employment.
About 30 miles south of Oxford, West Berkshire is equidistant from Bristol and London. Estate agents like to describe it as the first bit of “real” countryside – as opposed to manicured suburbia – to be found west of London. They have a point; it is a region where thick woodland and river valleys give way to rolling chalk downland.
According to buying agents The Buying Solution, the market for £1.5m-plus properties dipped by only about 5 to 10 per cent during the recession, and prices are now at their pre-2007 level. Savills has sold more than 40 homes for at least £750,000 this year. Yet while homes priced under £1.5m are selling well (usually to cash buyers), those over £3m are proving slower to shift. “People are buying carefully,” says Bobby Hall, a partner at The Buying Solution. “Instead of wealthy people simply moving to a very big house in the country as they would do before the crash, many are now buying a flat in London, where prices are still escalating, as an investment, and settling for a smaller house here.”
Schooling is the single biggest driver at the top end of the property market. “We notice fluctuating demand for different villages as parents return to London with glowing reports of the local prep school,” says John Shaw, a partner at Strutt & Parker at Pangbourne. The influence of state schools on homebuyers is also significant, especially The Downs at Compton – judged “outstanding” by Ofsted – and Kennet School, Thatcham, the highest achieving state school in West Berkshire, run by one of the country’s “super heads”, Paul Dick.
To the northeast of the region, Hungerford and its surrounding villages are handy for Marlborough. Buyers there pay the best prices for homes that are convenient for the M4 or the mainline railway, with the proviso they do not suffer undue road or rail noise. Kintbury, with its shops, pub and railway station, is popular. So is Inkpen, a long, straggly village that attracts walkers. In Hungerford, Strutt & Parker is selling 26 The Croft, a five-bedroom, renovated Edwardian townhouse half a mile from the station with gardens leading down to the canal. The property is on the market for £965,000.
Newbury, the main town in the region, with a population of about 32,000, has recently had an expensive revamp. Yet with its canalside bars and Corn Exchange, it retains its market town charm. Like most towns of its size, it now has a retail park outside the town but this has not unduly damaged its town centre. With a shop vacancy rate of only 5.6 per cent – half the national average – there is little evidence of the boarded-up windows that blight so many UK towns.
Newbury also has some sought-after avenues. The Tydehams is lined with modern-ish detached homes, all of which sell for around £1m, while Speen Lane and Donnington are areas full of large Victorian homes, not all of which have been divided into flats. There is also a thriving buy-to-let market, notably for apartments rented short-term to visiting executives. In College Mews, a modern development in Donnington, a two-bedroom apartment costing about £250,000 will let for £1,200-plus a month.
There is significant housebuilding on the cards. By 2021, the latest projections estimate that the population of West Berkshire will increase by 10 per cent to 170,000, from its 2011 figure. To help meet the expansion, David Wilson Homes is building 1,500 units alongside Newbury Racecourse, the first development of its type, where future homeowners will have grandstand views of the racing. Prices will range from £160,000 and £750,000. Some 147 apartments – over half now sold – have been built above the new Parkway shopping centre and there is another huge development proposed on land to the south of the town owned by Newbury rugby club.
The villages outside Newbury, however, are relatively safe from development as 74 per cent of the land is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Westbrook Barn in the village of Boxford is a detached Grade II listed family home for sale for £1.25m with Knight Frank; and Redlands is a five-bedroom modern house with half an acre of gardens in Hermitage on sale through Jackson-Stops and Staff for £840,000.
The east of the region, with its country churches and gastropubs, contains some of the most sought-after villages. A ridge of woodland runs towards Reading containing Bucklebury, Stanford Dingley and the gloriously named Tutt’s Clump. Lower Bowden Manor is an attractive hilltop country house between Pangbourne and Basildon dating from the early 20th century. It stands in about 60 acres of gardens and agricultural land and is being sold, with a coach house, for £3.75m by Strutt & Parker.
Soon these villages will also benefit from the £600m redevelopment of nearby Reading Station, already under way and due for completion in 2018. “Commuters will be able to get into the station and park more easily, from where it is only half an hour to Paddington,” says Shaw. “It is sure to attract more top business people to the region in the future.”
Many will hope this will, in turn, herald a return to the boom years of 1991 to 2001, when West Berkshire had the highest productivity in the southeast, growing 41 per cent. Without, of course, the subsequent crash.
● According to Rightmove, house prices in West Berkshire went up 4 per cent between 2012 and 2013
● Most of last year’s sales were detached properties with an average sold price of £479,885
● Reading is just 30 minutes by train from London Paddington
● In the 12 months to March 2013, the crime rate in Newbury stood at 58 crimes per 1,000
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000: A four-bedroom modern detached house on a development on the south side of Newbury
£1m: A good sized detached house in a local village
£2m: A substantial period home with a granny cottage and spacious gardens in a popular village