05Conclusions and policy recommendations


Where people choose to live is largely determined by their stage of life. Young people aged between 25 and 34 prioritise proximity to the workplace, cost of housing, and access to leisure and cultural facilities when choosing where to live. Those aged between 35 and 55 tend to value access to good schools, and the size and type of their houses. And those aged over 55 prioritise access to countryside and green space. These preferences help to explain the differing demographics seen across cities and their surrounding areas – different parts of cities are more able to offer amenities that are prioritised by people at different stages of their lives.

The demand for city centre living has increased considerably in recent years – the populations of the city centres of English and Welsh cities increased by 37 per cent between 2001 and 2011. This is particularly stark when comparing it to the longer term trends in city centre living, where city centres saw declining populations through the 1970s and 1980s.

But this return to city centre living has been stronger in some cities than others. The populations of city centres in large cities doubled between 2001 and 2011, driven by young, single professionals and students. The centres of medium and small cities have grown more slowly, by 35 per cent in medium cities and 22 per cent in small cities, and this growth has been driven by residents working in non-professional occupations.

These differing trends are partly explained by universities – the growth of student numbers in universities has been felt particularly strongly in large cities, and changing preferences for student accommodation has meant that a large part of city centre growth has been driven by students. But while this has been a major part of the growth in cities like Sheffield and Middlesbrough, other cities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, have seen more of their growth accounted for by young professionals.

This is related to the strength of their city centre economies, and it is something that is likely to continue. The likelihood of the UK to continue to specialise in knowledge-focused activities, and the preference of these types of jobs for city centre locations, means that city centres – particularly in large cities – are likely to play an ever greater role in the wider city economy. In these cities, more young professionals are likely to move into city centres, increasing the pressure on city centre accommodation – as well as on office space. But more suburban residents are also likely to commute into city centres, underpinning the requirement for good public transport links across the city-region.

In small and medium sized cities which have seen slower growth in their city centres, and where jobs tend to be dispersed across the city, fewer young professionals have been attracted into the city, and city centre populations tend to be families who locate there for cheap housing. These trends are unlikely to change through physical regeneration alone, and instead it is likely to be clustering of high-knowledge jobs in the city centre that will see long term population change. And if these strategies are pursued, then the displacement of existing city centre populations will also need to be factored in.

Policy implications

Planning strategically across city regions

People choose where to live across a city according to the attributes that a neighbourhood can offer, on the basis of their preferences at certain stages in their life cycle. Understanding these characteristics, and the links between areas, is crucial for local authorities to provide the appropriate types and tenures of housing, modes of transport, and public services, in appropriate places. This means that planning needs to be managed at a strategic level right across the city region, with governance structures that strengthen cooperation. Granting strategic planning powers to combined authorities, as in London and as has been announced for Manchester and Sheffield,28 will help cities and their surrounding areas to make these decisions at the appropriate scale.

Putting economic development at the heart of regeneration strategies

City centre regeneration strategies have often focused on physical or cultural regeneration.29 And while there are many positive benefits that can be reaped from these sorts of interventions, treated alone, they tend to have limited effect on population growth30 and local economic growth31 – and will not alone be sufficient to attract people into the city or the city centre. If policies to attract new residents in city centres are to be pursued, cities need to put city centre economic growth at the heart of it – through matching up skills provision to local businesses, supporting existing strengths and clusters in local businesses, and ensuring that city centres are able to offer the employment space and infrastructure that businesses need.

Extending Permitted Development Exclusion Zones

High-demand areas in some authorities, including several London boroughs and central Manchester, have been declared Permitted Development Exclusion Zones, in order to preserve uncontrolled conversion of valuable office space.32 Allowing other places to introduce Exclusion Zones in high demand areas, subject to Government endorsement, could reduce the risk to city centre economies preserving valuable office space.

Maximising student presence in city centres

The location of university buildings and students have had a large impact on the development of city centres of large cities in recent years, and can have a role in helping to support local shops and amenities. Universities in cities with poorly performing city centres should review their property portfolios to consider increasing their presence in the city centre – either through new city centre campuses, a strategy that has been adopted in Ipswich and Newport, or by developing new student accommodation. While this approach is not a silver bullet either for residential growth or for long term economic growth, and there are recognised challenges that stem from having transient student populations in city centres,33 it can have a role in increasing footfall within wider city centre strategies.

Mitigating the drawbacks of city centre life: managing pollution and open spaces

People live in city centres in order to capture the benefit of proximity to work and to restaurants and cultural facilities – and in doing so, they accept high levels of pollution, and a lack of access to green space. But as city centres grow, these drawbacks are likely to intensify, potentially becoming deterrents to city centre living – meaning that cities will need to think actively about how to mitigate them. Making landscaping and both public and private green spaces a part of new developments in city centres can not only offset some of the drawbacks of city centre living, but also improve residents’ perception of density, making more sustainable and economic use of space palatable to growing numbers of urban residents.34 And with road traffic emissions as the key cause of air pollution in cities,35 congestion charging, cycling strategies and investment in low-emission public buses can all be practical ways of improving air quality.


  • 28 GMCA and HM Treasury (2014) Greater Manchester Agreement: devolution to the GMCA & transition to a directly elected mayor. London: HM Treasury. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/369858/Greater_Manchester_Agreement_i.pdf; Carptenter J (2015) Sheffield devolution deal includes strategic planning powers. Planning (2 October 2015) http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1366858/sheffield-devolution-deal-includes-strategic-planning-powers.
  • 29 Tallon A (2013) Urban Regeneration in the UK. Second edition. London: Routledge
  • 30 Champion T and Fisher T (2004) Migration, residential preferences and the changing environment of cities. In Boddy M and Parkinson M (2004) City Matters: Competitiveness, cohesion and urban governance. Bristol: The Policy Press
  • 31 What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth (2015) Evidence Review 5: Estate Renewal. London: WWCLEG http://www.whatworksgrowth.org/policies/estate-renewal/
  • 32 DCLG (2013). Areas exempt from office to residential change of use permitted development right 2013. London: DCLG. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/areas-exempt-from-office-to-residential-change-of-use-permitted-development-right-2013
  • 33 DCLG (2008) Evidence gathering: Housing in Multiple Occupation and possible planning responses – final report. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/evidencegatheringresearch
  • 34 OECD (2012) Green Growth Studies Compact City Policies: A comparative assessment. Paris: OECD.
  • 35 Environmental Protection UK (2015) Air Pollution Sources http://www.environmental-protection.org.uk/committees/air-quality/about-air-pollution/air-pollution-sources/