Big exodus from the cities

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Inner-city decay is being made worse by a flood of urban-dwellers leaving Britain's largest cities for smaller towns and the countryside, new census research has revealed. The out-migration is also exacerbating the loss of green fields and woods to suburban sprawl.

About 90,000 people each year quit the big urban areas of England for pastures new, with London suffering the biggest exodus, according to the research by geography professor Tony Champion of the University of Newcastle.

His conclusions throw cold water on the Government's hopes of a revival in urban living. Its proposed target is for 60 per cent of all new homes to be provided within existing urban areas rather than in the countryside; the current rate is about 50 per cent.

But Professor Champion reports that the outward flow from London and England's next six largest cities has accelerated through the 1990s after a drastic slowdown in 1989 and 1990, when house prices suddenly began to fall after years of rapid growth. His prime sources are 14 years of the National Health Service's Central Register, based on people registering with their local GP up to 1994, and the 1991 census.

He found a universal pattern of urban flight, with people moving from city cores to suburbs, big towns to smaller ones, and from densely populated counties to remoter, thinly inhabited ones. It was, he said, "an extremely deep-seated process which has been going on for decades".

This applies to most sections of the population but is particularly marked among those aged 30 to 44, the self-employed and the retired. The only group to buck the trend are 16- to 29-year-olds, among whom there has been a net move into the cities.

Professor Champion's survey, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, suggests the exodus will gather pace as the number of homes bought and sold rises in a swiftly recovering property market.

Out-migration from the seven biggest metropolitan areas - London, Birmingham, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Liverpool, Manchester and Tyneside - peaked at 125,000 in 1987, the height of the last boom. Between 1981 and 1994 more than 1.28 million people left.

The new research suggests that the Government will have to come up with more radical, expensive and controversial policies than it has been willing to contemplate if it wishes to protect the inner cities from desertion and the countryside from sprawl.