Not so long ago, it seemed many UK cities would be better off as farmland. Now, thanks to retail therapy and loft living, we are seeing a great transformation
Why not drop a name if you have a name to drop? So: I was talking to the chancellor of the exchequer the other day, and mentioned to him my view that housing is a big political issue once again. This is this not just my personal opinion. My constituency postbag shows that mortgages in inner-city areas have become a matter of concern. And the behaviour of some landlords has become such a problem that 160 MPs have signed a motion calling for controls to prevent them permanently pocketing their tenants' deposits. Believe it or not, there are still 2.25 million private tenants. No wonder the 2001 census statistics show a 7% population decline in the main regional cities since 1981 – an outflow of 90,000 a year.

And yet this picture is misleading. The government's regeneration projects have begun to stabilise, if not reverse, that outflow. And Michael Parkinson, professor of urban affairs at Liverpool John Moores University and adviser to the government's Core Cities group, says that some cities a decade ago looked like "basket cases, going out of business". Today, he says, "cities are going at different paces and have different plans, and these may be fragile, but there is enough evidence that they are doing well".

A couple of decades ago, the Northmoor area of my Manchester constituency looked as though it was on the skids. Yet the residents and the officials from the government, council and housing association have turned the situation around. This coming weekend there will be Fun Day, with a bandstand, children's entertainment, outdoor cafe, street arts and much else. The reason for the celebration is the launch of the latest phase in the Homezone regeneration project.

Farther into Manchester, the kind of development I saw in the USA 20 years ago is establishing itself. Old warehouses and schools are being turned into premium flats for upwardly-mobile singles. What's more, local authorities are learning the lesson that, in an age of retail therapy, interesting shops can attract people back to city centres. It is not so long ago that exurban shopping malls – a more malign transatlantic import – were regarded as the trend of the future in Sheffield, Tyneside and Greater Manchester. Now the lure of city centres is being felt.

Birmingham's reimagined Bull Ring is one significant example. The city fathers understood that it was simply unacceptable for Brum to be 13th on the nation's list of top 20 shopping destinations. Up to 30 million shoppers are expected in the first year.

Leeds used to be so dull the only place you could get a late-night coffee was the snack bar at the station

And now the readers of Traveller magazine have voted Leeds their favourite British city. When I was growing up there, the centre was so dull that the only place you could get a late-night cup of coffee was the snack bar at Leeds Central Station. Now the city centre offers 200 bars, clubs and restaurants. And whereas there used to be only two tolerable hotels where optionless visitors could find a night's accommodation, there are now several smart boutique hotels to choose from.

Sport, too, can make a city more attractive to locals and visitors. The regeneration of Manchester as a result of last year's Commonwealth Games has meant more hotels, more amenities, more museums of an especially innovative kind, and more prosperity. The transformation of the Salford Quays, with the Lowry, the Imperial War Museum and, yes, more glittering shopping opportunities, demonstrates how a city can slough off the depressing legacy of Love on the Dole.

Heaven knows, there is still much to be done. This country is culpable for having allowed the degeneration of its cities in a way that Italy, for example, would not. Last month I visited the lively, elegant towns of Pesaro and Macerata on the Adriatic coast of central Italy. Their compact centres, complete with piazzas, are places of resort and refreshment, as well as designer shopping. That is a lesson we still have to absorb fully in Britain.