Homeowners switching on to high life in the city

Housing shake-up: Suburban dream in decline as middle classes reverse decades of metropolitan exodus
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The dream of a quiet middle class life in a semi-detached in suburbia is becoming a thing of the past. After 60 years of drift to the suburbs, metropolitan life is back in vogue with homeowners chasing the higher "fun factor" of the city centre.

Demand for city homes represents a major cultural change, says a report by a research group which predicts a shortage, particularly in London.

Geoff Marsh, author of the report, said: "People are choosing to swap their expensive, boring and uncomfortable commute from the suburbs ... for the efficiency and higher 'fun factor' of living as centrally as possible. London again is a trendy place to live and much safer than popular imagery would have you believe." The pattern is being repeated across England and Scotland: "People are wanting to move back into the inner cities because it is perceived that there is more energy there. There is a cultural change going on."

But without radical action, first-time buyers and the poor will suffer. Housing in London, particularly, looks set to become a "social and political battlefield" over the next decade with a shortage of up to 100,000 homes, says a report by London Residential Research. While 153,000 new homes will be needed by 2006, only 10,000 units are being built each year.

From the 1930s on, the trend has been for moving outwards as city centre prices rose out of reach and fears grew about crime, traffic and pollution. But over the last few years the trend has been slowly reversing.

The population of the south London borough of Southwark had seemed in inexorable decline since its high point of 338,000 in 1951. But the trend was arrested in 1981 (when it had declined to 218,000) and has been steadily growing. The 1991 census recorded 227,000. Tower Hamlets, in east London, followed the same pattern, losing 20,000 to 30,000 people each decade since 1951 until 1981, when its population was down to 145,000. It jumped 23,000 to 168,000 by 1991. Islington, Camden and Hackney all followed similar trends. "It's by definition the middle classes who are moving back. Before, you could not get anything under the pounds 100,000 to pounds 120,000 bracket . . . Now there's more opportunity."

The middle classes who are moving back tend to be young couples or those with the money to educate children privately; the educational standards of inner-city schools still discourage less well-off parents.

In London the first step on the property ladder is somewhere like Docklands, east London, in a Barratt home.

The next step up is the more sophisticated Clerkenwell developments where what Mr Marsh calls the "crafty classes" now live - the creative, media and design professionals. Next step up is Bloomsbury, Maida Vale or Paddington where an income of pounds 35,000 to pounds 40,000 is necessary. "It's for the more established professionals or alternatively for the rich overseas students who are quite happy to pay pounds 250 to pounds 300 rent a week."

The final target is Fitzrovia - the area around Tottenham Court Road in central London: "There's very little stock left but it's the tip top location. You can tumble home from the Caprice, saving pounds 2 on a taxi fare."

London has the added advantage in its role as an international city which is rapidly expanding. Tourism grew 11 per cent in the first five months of 1995 and London hotel rates are enjoying such high rates of occupancy that the London Tourist Board says 10,000 more rooms could be needed by 2000.

But the report warns that social housing will continue to suffer without a rationalisation of housing associations. At present they are major players in the market -there are nearly 50 associations building 4,353 units in 114 schemes in central London - but as state funding dries up they will have to compete with the private sector.

"Housing associations have found it particularly difficult to develop new homes in central London," the report adds. "This can only lead to even greater shortages of affordable housing in central and inner London."

Leading article, page 12

Move to quality street beats chore of commuting


John Oxley knows why he deserted the leafy and tranquil suburbs of Richmond for London's city centre: "The quality of life is so much better".

Mr Oxley, partner in the chartered surveyors Allsop and Co, recently moved from near Richmond Park to a mews house in Marylebone.

"There were all sorts of reasons why I moved", he said. "I'd been travelling into London from Richmond since 1976 and I'd gradually got more and more fed up with the delay. I was sitting in the car every day for between three-quarters of an hour and an hour just to get into work and it was extremely boring. It was such a waste of time and very tiring in the evenings. Public transport was no better.

"When you live in the centre you can walk to work. It's a lot more convenient and it just makes life easier. Something as simple as going to the theatre or cinema - it was difficult to do that in Richmond without rushing as I would normally not get home before 7.30 to 8 . . . Now I have more choice. It's no trouble walking home or catching a very quick cab. The quality of life is so much better."

During the 1980s boom, he said, a lot of well-off professionals had been tempted to move to the countryside but most moved back. "The problem is if you are travelling for a long time every day, how much time do you spend in the countryside?" he added. "I never used to have time to go to Richmond Park except at the weekends. Now I have the convenience of living in central London close to Regent's Park and at the weekends I can go out to Richmond Park or parts of the countryside with ease."