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The face of UK cities is being changed forever - by a fashionable housing trend that could create the slums of tomorrow.

And there's no going back - as the boom in city living apartments produces a new generation of high density tower blocks.

The warning signs of an impending social disaster are starting to become apparent to one of the country's leading professional bodies for landlords.

The Residential Landlords Association - whose members own over 100,000 private rented properties throughout the UK - is already spotting early disillusionment as landlords start to disinvest from what they suspect could be an unsustainable housing trend.

"The tragedy for our cities," says RLA Chairman, Chris Town, "is that there's no going back. Building patterns, nationally, have shifted from houses to apartments and a fashionable housing trend has already been allowed to change city landscapes with purpose-built, 300 to 400-unit tower blocks that couldn't be converted to any other use.

"Local authorities think it's great as the private sector funds new residential development with related roadworks and infrastructure. There seems to be a property boom … prices rise …and short-term prospects look good for investors. But it's just not sustainable.

"Apartments are already standing empty in many regenerated northern city centres. I know one where 50% of new units are unoccupied - yet 3,000 more are under construction and developers still have another 6,000 at planning stage.

"Many city centre developments are a new lifestyle equivalent to 'bedsit-land' - poorly planned, low quality little boxes, 'smartpads', 'crashpads', call them what you will - with no open space and often little or no parking.

"Some are custom-built for students. And higher-end apartments are bought for corporate use by key staff and visiting clients. But the problem lies in the very large 'lifestyle fashion' sector - young, usually single people who want to be close to their city workplace and leisure amenities - clubs, bars and cinemas.

"This is a young, un-established market and it's being oversupplied with small, developer-led properties that bear little relationship to future demand.

"There's talk of a five-year city living burnout before these people have had enough and want to get out into the suburbs. And this is already beginning to happen. I'm hearing stories of apartments becoming difficult to let and landlords being forced to drop rents, which attracts different types of tenant, changes the residential profile … and prompts the original, more affluent tenants to leave too.

"There are select, expensive, well located properties, of course, but some tower blocks can have more than 50 landlords operating different letting policies and attracting different types of tenants with conflicting lifestyles. As a result, falling values and falling returns are persuading some disillusioned professional landlords to disinvest … provided they can find a buyer. And amateur 'buy-to-let' investors are getting very burnt fingers.

"The next problem is - who will live in these blocks then? Is this going to be a repeat, under a different guise, of disastrous public sector housing projects like Leek Street Flats in Leeds and Kelvin Flats in Sheffield which promised an exciting new innovation in the 50's and 60's … only to slide into crime-ridden slums and be demolished less than 30 years later?

"I hope I'm wrong ... because no-one needs that kind of nightmare."

22/06/2006 00:00

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