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City-centre living preferred despite high rents

Words: Laura Edgar

Young professionals are increasingly choosing to live in UK city centres despite a lack of green space, high rents and poor air quality, according to a report.

The number of residents aged 20-29 living in large city centres has almost tripled between 2001 and 2011.

The report, Urban Demographics – why people live where they do (pdf), by think tank Centre for Cities, is based on new analysis and national YouGov polling.

The report reveals that 39 per cent of city centre residents surveyed are attracted to urban areas because of the amenities, including restaurants, leisure and cultural facilities. Twenty-seven per cent of respondents say proximity to the workplace is one of the main appeals.

For those living in these locations, the report says 31 per cent of those polled highlight the cost of housing as one of the main drawbacks, while a quarter of those surveyed cite pollution and poor air quality as other factors they dislike about living in urban areas.

Additionally, says the survey, the increase in city centre living has been driven by the expansion of universities - students make up 44 per cent of the total population in large city centres. Furthermore, the report argues that this influx reflects the growth of the UK economy and the number of available jobs. Businesses prefer to be in dense urban areas where they can be close to clients, customers and competitors.

People aged 18-24 are, adds the report, more likely than any other age group to say they live where they do because they grew up there, with 26 per cent saying they live there to be near friends and family.

From the age of 35 onwards, proximity to the workplace is less likely to be a reason why people choose to live where they do. The report says other factors take over, such as, “the safety and security of the neighbourhood (17 per cent), being close to good schools (13 per cent), and the size and type of housing (21 per cent) become more significant”.

Also, the cost of housing (30 per cent) is an important factor for this age group.

Urban Demographics makes five key policy recommendations, including:

  • Planning strategically across city regions: People live out their lives across city regions and need different things from different places. Integrating housing, transport and public services requires strategic planning and transport powers at combined authority level, similar to those granted in London and Manchester.

  • Extending Permitted Development Exclusion Zones: In growing city centres, meeting increasing demand for both office space and housing will be crucial for supporting growth. Extending Permitted Development Exclusion Zones into more high-demand city centres would help to retain the balance between valuable office space and housing.

  • Mitigating the drawbacks of city centre life: Managing pollution and open spaces, city centre residents accept high pollution and few green spaces in order to enjoy city centre living. But as city centres grow, these drawbacks could become deterrents and hold back growth. Cities with growing city centres will need to do more to mitigate these effects – by reducing emissions through sustainable transport strategies, and by actively incorporating parks and open spaces in new developments.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive at the Centre for Cities, said the research demonstrates how UK cities have changed over the past 15 years, from “often deprived and crime-ridden areas into places where young professionals across the country increasingly want to live and work”.

It is clear, she said, that the drawbacks of high rents and a lack of green space are outweighed by access to highly skilled jobs, amenities and shops.

“But local leaders shouldn’t take this growth in people and jobs for granted, and need to consider how they can sustain and capitalise on these trends. That means taking steps to make city centres better places to live and do business in – for example, by building more housing in urban areas to meets the needs of young professionals, and by investing in infrastructure, to attract more jobs and firms to central areas,” Jones concluded.

Mike Bothamley, head of real estate at legal firm DAC Beachcroft, which sponsored the report, added: “This important study confirms a particular group of factors that have created thriving city centres and sets out the conditions necessary for future growth. The clear link identified between choice of home location and life stage emphasises for providers of housing and private and public services the importance of alignment to these requirements.”

* The report’s findings are based on national YouGov polling of 2,080 nationally representative residents from across Britain and an “in-depth” YouGov polling of 1,725 residents from four case-study cities – Manchester, Swindon, Brighton and Sheffield.

* Statistics about population growth are based on analysis of census data for the years 2001 and 2011.