THE CHEAPEST house in Shildon – Britain’s budget property capital for the third year in a row – has just been sold at auction with a guide price of £35,000.
For the same money in New Malden, South London, that would currently buy a lock-up garage with faded and chipped paint on its roller door.
It seems like an incredible bargain – but neighbour Sandra Comrie, 58, rolls her eyes and sighs: “Whoever’s bought it has over-paid.”
The one-bedroom terraced house with off-street parking, just behind the high street in the County Durham town, needs a bit of work.
But as far as care home worker Sandra is concerned, no amount of TLC could make it a decent investment.
“The last bloke who lived there was driven out by the local kids smashing his windows night after night,” she says.
“The crime and anti-social behaviour around here is crazy.”
To emphasise her point she gestures towards a boarded up house at the end of the terrace.
Every door and window is covered in chipboard behind the smashed panes of glass and paint daubs.
“See that place?” she says. “Someone actually lives in there. He never comes out, he daren’t or they’d have him. He just sits all day and night behind the boarded up doors and windows. It’s frightening.
“I came downstairs the other day to find a bloke in my kitchen, he’d just walked through the back door.
“He told me he was only letting me know my door was open but I knew he was trying to find stuff to pinch and I yelled at him to get out.
“The best thing you can do in this town is keep yourself to yourself and hope to stay safe, but sometimes they’ll come for you anyway.
“True, it’s cheap, but there’s a reason for that – no one wants to live here. I pay £375 a month for a two-bedroom terrace, you wouldn’t get that in most places.”
Sandra was born in Glasgow and raised in Corby, Northants, but three years ago she became one of a growing number of people migrating to Shildon from the South.
It’s not for the town’s railway museum or to watch Shildon AFC; the influx of Southerners comes down to simple economics.
Barmaid Marie Peacock, 50, explains: “People who can no longer afford to live in the South are coming here because it’s so cheap.
“Private landlords buy up all the houses and rent them out at low rents. But that means local people can’t afford to get on the property ladder and all these people arriving from across the country means the sense of community has gone.
“I’ve lived here since I was eight and everybody knew each other. That’s not the case any more.
“We’ve been forgotten and left behind. The Government and local authority have just left it to die away.
“We no longer have a school here. That closed down because the building was so neglected through being underfunded. The Shildon kids have to go to school in neighbouring towns now. We don’t even have a proper supermarket.”
Her pal, mum-of-two Michelle Race, 42, said: “There is nothing for the young people to do and that’s what leads to all the antisocial behaviour and trouble.
“The leisure centre is still open but it hardly has any facilities, the place feels dead.”
Ella Pratt, 19, ponders the question: “What’s it like living in Shildon?”
As she does a police car screeches past in pursuit of another vehicle, its blue lights flashing.
“It’s like that,” she answers.
The crime rate in Shildon is 49 per cent above the national average, with 142 crimes committed last year per 1,000 people. The most common were sexual and violent crimes.
Ella says most of the town’s young people have the simple ambition to leave.
She said: “There’s nothing to do for young people, the pubs are like going back in time to the Nineties and there’s nothing on the high street except about 60 pizza shops.
“I don’t work and I live with my Mam. I’m not bothered how much houses cost in Shildon because if I had the money to buy somewhere it would be far away from here.”
Claire Dent, 38, admits times are tough in her high street shop Denty’s, which sells everything from children’s and adult clothes to perfumes.
She said: “My rent here is only £550 a month, it would be double that in other towns. We’re also exempt from business rates because the properties are worth so little.
“I am struggling at the moment, especially as the electricity bill is £802 a month, so it’s just as well the rent is so low.”
Her husband David, 39, also tries to remain positive, saying: “You can get two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale for a fiver in The Royal George.”
“I lived in Shildon for 13 years before Claire and I moved to Newton Aycliffe, but I must admit I miss the place. It’s a friendly town with a lot of really good people in it.”
In the midst of the many boarded-up shops on the high street – including the town’s Costa branch – is estate agent FJ Estates, where Geraldine Raw explains what has led to Shildon’s house price slump in her view.
“It has to keep step with the level of benefits people get and in this part of County Durham it’s very low,” she said.
“I had a single woman under 35 in here recently who only got £282.44 a month towards her housing from Universal Credit.
“That means the house prices have to be low so that the private landlords who buy them can charge rents that people in the town can afford.
“We often sell through auction houses which attracts investors from London.”
Councillor Peter Quin, a Shildon resident of 30 years and former mayor of the town, says the decline began “when the wagon works shut.”
That was way back in 1984, with the loss of 1,750 jobs, a blow that the town once known as The Cradle of the Railways has never recovered from.
Peter says: “Prices are low here because there are a lot of Band A properties, houses built for workers from the railways and the mines, which are long since gone.
“Yes, the town has had a tough time and it’s been up against it for years.
“But there’s one thing they’ll never take from us and that’s the community spirit. People care about their friends and neighbours and if you’re in trouble they’ll look out for you. You can’t put a price on that.”
Peter said the councillors on Shildon Town Council came to a decision not to be paid allowances or expenses.
He said: “If all 17 councillors were paid £1,000 each, that’s £17,000 people have to fund through their taxes.
“We decided we didn’t want that, we give our time willingly for the good of the town and that’s how things work here, that’s what community is all about.”