"Friends" has a lot to answer for: 11 things we just learnt about city centre living in England & Wales

The one where they change the face of Britain? Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry in a 2002 episode of "Friends". Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

The British attitude to urban living used to be pretty straightforward: inner cities were places you only lived if you had to. The good life (yes, that's a pun) was to be found in the suburbs, where you could get a semi detached house with a two-car driveway and a garden where you could grow some begonias. For the middle classes – for those who had any choice in the matter – cities were for work. Suburbia was home.

But a report out this month from our old mates at the Centre for Cities (CfC), and funded by law firm DAC Beachcroft, confirms and quantifies something that you probably already suspected: that this trend has gone into reverse.  

In the 1970s and 80s, city centres across England and Wales hollowed out, as people retreated from deindustrialising cities to the suburbs. But these trends have reversed since 1991, and growth has accelerated since 2001. The population of city centres grew by 37 per cent between 2001 and 2011, significantly faster than suburbs and hinterlands, which grew by 8 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.

In other words, those endless articles about gentrification aren’t just whining: more people really are crowding into Britain’s city centres.

Here are 11 other things we learnt from the report.

Living in city centres started getting fashionable in the 1990s

Can we blame Friends? I’m blaming Friends. Or maybe Sex & the City – definitely one of those New York sitcoms, anyway.

Whatever, the graph of how many people live in city centres over time looks like this:

 

Big cities have seen biggest growth in city centre living

The CfC gathered data on the city centre populations of 60 English and Welsh cities, and how they changed between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. The vast majority (57 out of 60) saw an increase.


But the scale of that increase varies massively. In 19 cities, the city centre population increased by more than 50 per cent; in eight it more than doubled, and in Manchester it’s nearly tripled.

As the graph above suggests, it’s not just that more people want to live in cities: more people want to live in big cities. Five of England’s eight “core cities” (the largest outside London) saw their city centre populations more than double; the other three all saw increases of 65 per cent of more.

Here’s the top, er, 13. (Look, Newcastle is ranked 13th, okay?) The eight core cities are in red:

 

City centres are dominated by 20-somethings

Remember how we said that Friends had a lot to answer for? We weren’t kidding. The number of 20-somethings living in Britain’s city centres has skyrocketed.

In all, 17 cities saw the number of 20-29 year olds living in their centres more than double between 2001 and 2011. (That includes all eight core cities, incidentally.) In five the number more than tripled; in two – Manchester and Bradford – it’s more than quadrupled.

The latter of these is a particularly unexpected figure. Bradford’s reputation tends to be a bit doom-y, and in recent years the Yorkshire city has been most famous for the great big hole in the ground where a long-promised shopping centre had been failing to appear for a decade. (It finally opened this week.)

And yet it turns out the population of hip young things living in its city centre increased by nearly 311 per cent in the decade to 2011. Go figure.

Here’s the top 10.

 

London is an outlier

Most of the major cities have seen huge increases in their “city centre” populations – but not, oddly enough, London.


In the first decade of this century, the number of people living in the centre of the capital increased by only 17 per cent, and the number of 20-29 year olds by only 34 per cent. Those aren’t small numbers in themselves – but they are when compared to the sort of increases on show in Manchester and Bradford.

While we’re at it:

Most new central Londoners have degrees

The young people moving to central London are much more likely to be graduates than the young people moving to most other cities.

 

 

 

We’re guessing that these last two points are both a house price thing – you need a pretty well paid job to afford a home in central London – but we are just guessing.

High house prices are probably hurting Cambridge, too

You’d think Cambridge, a boom town with a high student population, would have seen healthy increases in its city centre population, too, wouldn’t you? Yet it’s one of only three cities where the city centre population actually fell between 2001 and 2011.

 

It’s also one of only two where the population of 20-29 year olds in the city centre fell. In a city with two universities, the number of young people living in the city centre fell by 10 per cent.

 

We’re blaming this one on house prices, too – though that doesn’t explain why even pricier Oxford is relatively immune. Answers on a postcard.

Single people are disproportionately likely to live in inner London

Yet more evidence for our “New York-based sitcom” hypothesis here:

 

...while married ones move to the sticks

And here, too:

 

Metropolitans love their lifestyle

Look at the reasons people give for living where they do. The main advantages of being in the city centre are all about facilities – shops, the arts, socialising, and so on:

 

Worth noting, too, that hardly anyone grew up in city centre neighbourhoods, implying that they’ve chosen to move there. The indifference to schools suggests that hardly any of them have kids, either.

City centre living comes at a cost

Several costs, actually, but they’re generally predictable ones: expensive housing, pollution, the lack of green space:

 

Note too that urbanites, suburbanites and country squires are all united in one thing: a shared loathing for their neighbours. Which is lovely.

Swindon is weird

Lastly, an economic point. Most cities have all their jobs in the centre. Look at Sheffield:

 

And Brighton:

 

Now look at Swindon:

 

To quote the report:

This demographic profile, which is more characteristic of a suburb, suggests that the city centre has less of a distinctive draw seen in other city centres.

Or to put it another way: no self-respecting 25 year old who wants to live a cool metropolitan lifestyle is voluntarily moving to Swindon.

You can see the full Centre for Cities/DAC Beachcroft report here.

Image credits: Nicely designed images: Centre for Cities. Images that look like they were knocked up by a colourblind incompetent on Excel: CityMetric.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.