PROPERTY / A great leap inwards: The trend is back to the centre and away from the suburbs, reports Patrick Matthews

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The Independent Culture
ONE-WAY system . . . office block . . . windswept plaza . . . shopping precinct . . . In Britain, city centres are functional rather than cosy and are not the obvious places to set up home. But the 1991 census returns now being analysed by the Department of the Environment suggest that this is changing. For the first time in more than a century, people are going back to the centre to live.

The trend may not yet be on the scale of the great tidal flow that carried the middle classes to the Victorian suburbs, but it is anchored firmly in the economics of the property market. The collapse in the value of office space has created a vacuum, now exerting its pull on all sorts of people, from the rich to families on councils' housing lists.

Property developers and housing associations have begun converting workplaces to homes; so have individuals, weary of commuting and inspired by the Continental tradition of city life. They are supported by some city councils - in Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, for example - in the hope that this will revitalise the hearts of their cities.

For the last two years the trend has been driven forward by simple arithmetic: other than in prime sites, office rents are now so low that a building can be twice as valuable to its owners if redeveloped as housing.

Some developers also believe that a central address will help attract the fashionable and the affluent. Richard Tykocki-Crow, for example, is managing a project to turn 100,000 square feet of planned offices on Farringdon Road, just north of the City of London, into upmarket flats. A half-built concrete frame is all that remains of the previous owner's liquidated scheme.

'I don't think any developer now sees office-only developments as the way forward,' says Tycocki-Crow. 'It's going to be office and residential and retail. You're going to see the pattern you see in Paris and Amsterdam - the City of London should get back to that. It was a live-and-work place as recently as the 1930s.'

In central London, the Soho Housing Association is recapturing the spirit of 60 years ago by converting offices and car parks into new homes. These will be supported by a network of play groups, nurseries and youth clubs. Helen Wood, the housing association's director, believes that attracting a balanced population into an area, particularly families, restores its vibrancy.

Charles Jack, a furniture maker, lives in a Soho Housing Association flat with his wife and three small children. His family returned after a period in a London suburb which, they felt, lacked the security and community spirit of the city centre. 'We found that the area was getting very unpleasant, with crime and a big homelessness problem,' he says. 'My wife, who is French, thinks you should either be in the middle of town or outside completely - there's no point being stuck halfway. What you get here is a sense of what's going on, even if you don't go out all the time.'

Local authorities, too, are trying to bring back life to the city centres. Manchester Development Corporation was alarmed in the mid 1980s to find that there were fewer than 200 people living in the centre. It responded by putting money into a project to build 180 new homes on derelict land.

Giulio Nobilio lives in one of these new homes, which he saw under construction while travelling to work at his central Manchester restaurant. The journey from the village in Yorkshire where he lived with his wife and daughter used to eat up three hours a day. 'Originally I looked at this as somewhere I could have a rest in the afternoons. Then my wife said she wanted to move. I couldn't understand how she could want to leave a 200-year-old converted barn and come to live in the city centre. She said, 'If I do, I'll see you three hours extra'.'

Mr Nobilio, while delighted with his new home, thinks Manchester is some way from acquiring the feel of a Continental city.

'In Italy we like the good life, and we feel you can only have that in cities. Manchester isn't like a European city: they always have a main street where you can go for a coffee, where you can sit out on the pavement. The weather here has a lot to do with it. Also, to make a Continental city you have to teach people to respect things. I'd like to put flowerpots outside my restaurant, but I can't because people would kick them over.'

One obstacle standing in the way of a migration back to the centre may be the attitude of the less progressive local councils. They have the power to refuse applications for a change from business to residential use. While some planners are excited by the prospect of people living where they work, others still cling to the practice of zoning areas for a single use.

According to Offices into Flats, a report from the Policy Studies Institute published just before Christmas, some developers refuse to believe that making property available for residential use is necessary. The owners of white-elephant developments - in many cases the receivers - are frequently unwilling to accept that they will never find commercial tenants.

But James Barlow, one of the report's authors, welcomes the new trends and their promise of a different kind of city life. 'There is potential, but it does need a change of policy, both from councils and building owners. I think it's desirable socially and desirable in terms of energy efficiency because you're cutting down commuting. After all, you have people in city centres in Europe: it's only our Anglo-Saxon habits that make us wedded to suburban sprawl.'-

(Photograph omitted)