House prices in Worthing are rising faster than in Brighton and Hove.

The gap is closing between the two resorts with Brighton prices rising by 24.9 per cent and Worthing prices up by 25.6 per cent.

According to a survey by the Nationwide building society, the average price of a house in Brighton is now £165, 508, and in Worthing £133,409.

Estate agents in Worthing have noticed a surge of interest in the past year, especially from first time buyers and people pushed out of Brighton and Hove by exorbitant house prices.

Derek Steel, partner of Jacobs Steel and Co in Worthing, said: "Because prices were so high in Brighton anyway, a lot of investors have now been targeting Worthing as a good place to invest their money in property on a buy and let basis.

"We have had a lot of people moving from the Brighton area to Worthing because property in Brighton is that much higher. "Worthing is an up and coming town and a good place to live."

Steven Goddard, managing director of Goddards in Worthing, said: "There is a clear swing in the level of enquiries in Worthing from people living in Brighton who are being priced out of there.

"There is a particular interest from first time buyers."

Broadcaster Simon Fanshawe, who led the Brighton and Hove's Place To Be campaign for city status, said: "Brighton and Hove is the driver of the economy in this part of the south east and Worthing is a very important part of that.

"If Brighton and Hove's prosperity increases then that is bound to have a knock-on effect.

"Without being rude to Worthing, there is something happening in the south east with our economy in overdrive, which is even waking up sleepy places like that."

The spiralling prices in Brighton and Hove and Worthing are having a knock-on effect on affordable housing available in rural Sussex, as people unable to afford city and town prices move further afield.

Cheap housing is one of the biggest problems facing the south east, according to a report released today by the Countryside Agency.

The South East and London Regional Review of the State of the Countryside 2001 report shows how it is not just in towns and cities where first time buyers and people on low incomes are struggling to find affordable accommodation.

A spokesman said: "With its proximity to London and the charm and beauty of the countryside, much of the south east's housing stock is becoming priced out of reach of the local rural population, unable to match the economic power of those people moving into the countryside."

Phil Eadie, countryside officer for London and the south east region, said: "Sussex is definitely affected by an increase in house prices with the average rural house price in the south east being £134,983 compared to £99,582 in the rest of the country.

"All of Sussex is disadvantaged by access to housing and there is a huge percentage of people in local authority housing.

"Brighton is slightly better off than the rest of the county as there is some affordable housing there, but not by much.

"We need to work with communities in rural areas to improve matters. We must encourage local authorities to ensure any new developments keep a proportion of affordable housing for local people."

The report also shows the average weekly earnings of people in the rural south east to be £330 compared to £391 in urban areas.

It reveals how rural areas are also deprived of basic services such as a doctor's surgery or general store.