Public Servies: Housing takes centre stage - Councils are encouraging people to move back into the middle of towns and cities, says Stephen Pritchard

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Councils have been meeting with some success in promoting cities and winning back retail trade from out-of-town malls, especially through the creation of town centre management teams.

A number of those teams are now looking beyond shopping and commerce, and are examining the role leisure and the 'evening economy' can play in the rejuvenation of urban areas.

Perhaps the most important factor in achieving a safe and welcoming city is encouraging more people to live in the centre. This raises the numbers circulating in the city outside office or shopping hours. The amount of dark, deserted streets is reduced, bolstering natural surveillance. Moving people back into the centre also brings a supporting infrastructure of shops, bars and restaurants, and it cuts congestion and pollution as fewer people have to travel into the city for work.

This view is shared by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which is making city-centre housing one of its priorities, according to assistant secretary for planning and transport, Phil Harper. 'A busy town centre is a safe town centre,' he explains.

The Department of Environment's Flats Over Shops programme, due to finish later this year, has tended to favour smaller-scale conversions, typically in suburban shopping streets or smaller towns. The present planning system favours dividing cities into distinct areas for residential, commercial or retail development.

Leeds included city-centre housing in its housing strategy in July, and is working with local property owners, including Tetley, to convert office buildings and space above shops and pubs into flats. Some of these will be for the private rental sector, some for sale, and some will be let through the city's housing associations.

Leeds and other councils face two obstacles. The first is the problem of identifying the owners of empty or under-used sites, and then persuading them to convert them for housing use. The second is the legal requirement that councils must obtain 'best consideration' for any property disposals they make.

The two are linked as the property market puts a lower value on residential developments than offices, even if the latter are empty. Often large property owners feel they should wait for a possible upturn in the office rental market, rather than settle for an immediate income from housing.

It also makes it harder for councils to convince auditors that changing the use of its own sites meets the need for best consideration. Leeds feels the way forward is to lead by example. A number of outline bids have been submitted to the Housing Corporation and Leeds expects to see work start next year, including on an island site and a disused printing press.

In Birmingham, housing has been a key part of the council's city-centre strategy since its inception in 1987. The strategy divides Birmingham into seven areas, including the city-centre core, each with its own mix of residential, retail, commercial and industrial use. Downgrading the city's inner ring-road, the Queensway, will improve links between the areas, particularly for pedestrians.

This should encourage more people to see the city as an attractive place to live; the council also wants to see that the right mix of housing is built for them to live in. 'This has quite a long history,' explains Paul Walker, city centre planning group team leader. 'In 1992, we issued a revised city-centre strategy that highlighted the opportunities that existed for houses and the need to get some housing right into the city-centre core.'

Like Leeds, Birmingham has met reluctance from landowners to convert properties, and the council has started a number of demonstration projects as a means of overcoming their reservations. 'If you look above retail sites you will see empty property - and it's likely to remain empty,' says Mr Walker. 'Property owners persist in the view that someone will want to come along and convert them into offices. That's a 'hope value' that I never see happening in practice.'

One demonstration project is a council property, 2-12 Corporation Street, close to the city's New Street station. The Midlands Housing Association will rent out the 24 flats that are being built. Another site, the former New Victoria Hotel, will be replaced by a mixed-use development offering 30,000sq ft of retail space and 44 flats. The council believes that if these projects are a success, the private sector will come forward with its own plans.

Mr Walker accepts that city-centre housing is not suitable for everybody, but in a city of Birmingham's size, there is still scope to use housing as a regeneration tool. 'The heart of the city centre isn't really suitable for families, but it is suitable for a wide range of groups, such as professional people, corporate visitors, young couples,' he says.

If cities are to survive and grow, attracting all of these groups will be vital and councils will find themselves at the forefront of this. Birmingham, for example, is willing to help private-sector developers market both the concept of city-centre living, and individual projects. 'We want to see housing in the heart of Birmingham,' says Mr Walker, 'and will take a very pragmatic approach to how that might be achieved.'

(Photograph omitted)