Feature: Reimagining city centre accommodation is vital if our cities are to recover from the pandemic

By Jonathan Pearson, director at Residentially

Whatever our living or working conditions during the pandemic, the prospect of little more than our own four walls for company left many of us reconsidering whether we really did have the right home for our needs.

And whether it was a quieter life in the country, more space inside and out or simply better value for money, Covid-19 caused an immediate shift in what people in cities were looking for in their next home. Data from Rightmove in the wake of the pandemic showed a 126% rise in the number of city-dwellers searching for a home in the countryside, rising to as high as 275% in cities like Liverpool, London, and Edinburgh.

Separate research, carried out by the London Assembly Housing Committee, found that half of house-hunters in London were looking to move elsewhere in the summer of 2020. And this seemed to be backed up by estate agents Hamptons at the end of last year, when it reported a 62% rise in the number of homes being purchased by Londoners away from the capital.

More than two years on, there are signs that demand for city centre apartments are now returning to normal levels, with Rightmove recording a 27% increase in demand for flats, more than for any other form of property. It also found that average asking prices in the UK’s top 10 cities rose by 12.6% last year compared to 9.9% across the country as a whole.

This is good for city-centre developers who faced real uncertainty about the future of their work during the pandemic. It begins to provide more certainty too for the future of these places themselves, with struggling high streets and waning commuter numbers forcing identity crises on town and city centres up and down the UK.

However, the pandemic left several changing expectations on the right space in which people want to live, sleep and increasingly work which developers must now take into account. For example, working from home and hybrid working is now ‘new normal’, pet ownership is on the rise, and many people are still heavily scarred from having to endure such limited living quarters during the harshest of lockdown restrictions.

Staircasing valuations I’ve carried out on behalf of Residentially’s clients this year have shown the extent to which residents of typical city centre apartments are having to adjust their way of life as a result. Every room, from the bedroom to the kitchen, now seems to have a different use depending on what time of day it is and who needs it – whether it be a home study, gym, breakout area or somewhere to sleep. Another thing that struck me from these visits is how many more people now have dogs living with them in these often small apartments, despite often having little immediate outdoor space.

Our town and city centres desperately need the right mix of residents, businesses and visitors to ensure they can survive and thrive, and the newest homes will need to work much harder to prove that they reflect how people now live their lives. And developers will need to work more closely with councils to provide more affordable accommodation too, amidst a real lack of affordable homes in cities up and down the country.

For example, the latest data in Birmingham shows that more 17,000 households were waiting for a council house last year, up 21% compared to 2020. In Manchester, more than 1,000 people are currently being made homeless every month, with 3,000 households currently stuck in temporary accommodation. The council there has at least pledged to build 36,000 new homes over the next 10 years to keep up with this demand. And with space within the city so limited and expensive, it has also promised to sell land at a discounted rate so that housing associations can build 10,000 new affordable homes there. Other councils and developers are looking at converting underused car parks, shops and offices to get round this problem.

We are seeing more positive signs in cities like London where more than 18,000 affordable homes began on site last year, the highest number since records began, as well as in Brighton, another area that has struggled in the past to deliver enough affordable homes. There, a new development I advised on for Optivo Housing Association on the site of a former military barracks will not only create 396 homes for affordable rent and first-time buyers but also provide residents with landscaped outdoor spaces, flexible workspaces, communal space, a wellness area, bike and car club membership and even allotments. These are exactly the kind of amenities our next generation of city-dwellers will expect, and not to mention future generations too.

After all, the properties that came to market today will likely still be occupied in 28 years-time when, according to the latest predictions, one in four people in the UK will be over 65. Theoretically we’re all going to last for longer and live more disparately so developers will also really need to take that into account to look at ways of future proofing their homes for older residents.

Despite the boost in demand for accommodation, the future of our beleaguered city centres has never seemed more uncertain. Creating right kind of homes in these places is so important as developers everywhere look to recover from Covid-19.