Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 170-189)



  170. Advice which gives you a statutory power once you have done that analysis?
  (Mr Brook) Yes, a framework in which we can very clearly assess whether something is acceptable or whether it is not acceptable. Even if we come to a decision which may be right or wrong, it is quite likely to be challenged at some stage or another along the line and it is very important that your Inspectorate knows as much as we do about the way in which government is thinking on tall buildings.

Sir Paul Beresford

  171. But do you not think that, if the Government come up with guidelines, they become restrictive? The interesting point about the evidence this morning is that to compare your two cities is a case of contrast.
  (Mr Brook) I think that danger is always there and a good authority will remain flexible on all these issues like a good government. However, I do think there has to be a decision where, if various codes of conduct, if you like, are broken, then there must be an ability for the community to say that things are not acceptable.

  172. Or are acceptable?
  (Mr Brook) Or are acceptable, indeed.

Mr Betts

  173. Do you have a similar view?
  (Mr Brown) It is very clear, as you have just pointed out, that our situations are very different. I think that is one of the fundamental difficulties in terms of having an overall policy, in that it is very good to have a policy that says, this is how you should judge proposals and these key things are important and are factors that must be given due weight, such as key views and that sort of thing. In Birmingham, our situation is one of having a place where we think tall buildings are appropriate and it is just the way that our topography works. Bristol's is very different; the city is in a sort of bowl shape and a complicated one; the centre of Birmingham is located on a ridge and has clearly and obviously been the place to put tall buildings right from the time when it was first built. We are only simply building on that natural process by having that at the base of our policy. It would clearly be very useful to have government backing for the approach but leave the actual detail of where you should and where you should not put tall buildings in a local context down to us to analyse and have it enshrined in our local policies.

Christine Russell

  174. Before we move off this point, can I just clarify that Bristol are saying that a PPG would be useful on tall buildings and Birmingham are saying a contrary view. Is that right?
  (Mr Brown) No, not really. I do not think we are saying that. I suppose that, on the one hand, Birmingham is always keen to be an independent thinker and player and all the rest of it and we like to have our own policies.

Mrs Dunwoody

  175. That comes as a surprise!
  (Mr Brown) But, on the other hand, as you will know, the current government guidelines on good urban design are something which we are supporting; it is very much in line and is built on some of our work in the process of them being put together. I am sure that, if the guidelines are in the same sort of spirit, we would be very happy to see those.


  176. Do you mean the sort of spirit in which you could totally ignore them if you wanted?
  (Mr Brown) No.

Christine Russell

  177. Can I ask you about whether or not you feel it is appropriate in the current guidance to identify the zones where tall buildings could be constructed. Would you support that?
  (Mr Brown) It would not be a problem to us in Birmingham but it might be to somebody else. There are going to be a few occasions. For example, maybe you have a big and important institution like a university where having a tall building or a structure is a part of that university. It might be a very good thing because it marks that important organisation.


  178. It costs Birmingham University a great deal to maintain the tower, does it not?
  (Mr Brown) Yes, that may be true. It is actually not the only tall building that the university has. There is always going to be an exception that fights the rule if you look out for zoning issues. I think you have to have a certain element of leeway to take things on their merits, but you have to have very firm guidelines about how you judge those proposals and it is very much on those people who are putting forward those proposals to justify that they are of benefit and that it is not simply a money making exercise or whatever.

Christine Russell

  179. Mr Brook, can I ask you to talk about the Bristol view because you seemed to be saying earlier that you did not want to have tall buildings obliterating the view from the posh houses in Clifton and overlooking Dundry, but you seemed to be saying that you were quite happy to have them in Brislington or that area in eastern Bristol.
  (Mr Brook) I think our members would say that the basis of planning is equal for all people within the planning authority and I would certainly back that. When I talk about the views of Dundry, a number of those views are across the south of Bristol, so it would impact right across the community. I think our approach is somewhat different. We do not like zonal planning very much; we tend to very much measure things on a site by site basis under an umbrella of policies. In terms of the way we would approach tall buildings, we would look at those areas where there are sensitive parts of the city where views that tall buildings would block would actually be unacceptable to us, so that we would start from the principles of, what are the major aspects of the city? You must remember that Bristol is a tourist city; we are the biggest growing tourist city outside of London. We have a commercial interest in maintaining the current policy as we see it in the history environment. We would look for those areas which we do not want to have tall buildings in and then, within those other areas, we would look at a policy of a site by site assessment on the impact of those. Our particular issue is creating links, what we call legibility in the city, and it may well be that some tall buildings in certain areas of the east and south could help create identity and, in those areas, it will be up to the developer or the master planner to identify whether those will help or hinder the identity of the scheme they are creating.

  180. Could you perhaps help us by identifying an existing tall building—it might not be a very tall building—that, in your considered view, already has a negative impact in Bristol and maybe Birmingham could be thinking of the same.
  (Mr Brook) There is an area around our big shopping area which is part of the old castle; there was a tall building built there at the end of the 1970s called Castle Meads which is—and this is a public hearing—a pretty disgraceful building. We would dearly like to see it demolished.

Sir Paul Beresford

  181. Is it English Heritage listed yet?
  (Mr Brook) English Heritage share our view on this. Our view there is that, when these buildings come to the end of their life—and this one is one of those purple concrete jobs with bronze cladding—we would seek to try to encourage the developer to look at a high density. It could be replaced with similar densities which again could actually make an economic argument, but it would reduce the impact of this particular development against the skyline of the ancient castle site of Bristol.

Christine Russell

  182. What about Birmingham? Do you have any aesthetically unpleasing buildings that you would like to identify?
  (Mr Brown) Quite a few, yes. I suppose the most obvious one is that we have a tall building that belongs to the National Westminster Bank right in the heart of the city centre which is generally thought to be a fairly poor building in terms of the way it looks and it is not a particularly good building in the way that it works for the bank. We have been having discussions with them about demolishing it and replacing it with a very different building which would not actually be particularly tall.

  183. Can I go on to ask you about public consultation. Mr Brook, you have spoken about your members being unhappy with certain things. What about the people of Bristol? Have you gone out and done any consultation with the people of Bristol as to what their views are on tall buildings? For instance, I am not sure at what stage the planning application for Temple Meads is but has it progressed far enough for the public to be able to have their say already on it?
  (Mr Brook) I have not been involved in that particular application; I have been involved more on the western side of the city at Harbourside which is one of my responsibilities. Members are very keen on consultation over a broad range especially for major development sites. Our policy is to request that consultation is carried out by the developer initially but that is validated as being by respected professionals and that that view will be presented as part of a planning application when it is submitted. Obviously within a planning application there is the statutory consultation which occurs and it is a question of the length and the breadth of that consultation that is necessary and we do encourage developers to either have models on display or to have displays which they can take around to the city; so that it is not just looking at a particular area but there is a broad breadth of views that are gathered across the whole of the city. I think the difficulty with modern design, however you perceive it—and we encourage creativity and innovation and we want to see change—is that you still have to evaluate people's responses to that change and unfortunately people do not like to see things change and really the members have to take a view about what the community is saying and take a view about what potential there is for investing in the city and come to a view on it and often that is difficult.

  184. I think your colleague would like to add something.
  (Mr Torkildsen) Last summer, we conducted a city-wide consultation exercise to inform alterations to our development plan and some interesting comments were thrown out during that period. In particular, there was a fear about tall buildings and the proposals coming forward and inquiries for quite dramatic scale buildings in the city. The feeling was that there was concern that there was a lack of clarity in terms of local policy and national guidance on tall buildings. I think that is quite a relevant point in this respect. We feel locally that we have the criteria to be able to judge the suitability of the buildings in terms of height. However, out there in the wider concern, there is a concern and a real concern about that. We had to do something about that locally, perhaps making our guidance somewhat more explicit, providing that reassurance, but I think likewise there is the opportunity for government to give that clarity as well.


  185. It is a question of consultation. How far do you give any votes to the people who might be in the new building?
  (Mr Torkildsen) To the people who occupy the building?

  186. Yes.
  (Mr Torkildsen) A difficult one.

  187. The trouble with consultation is that it is geared to the people who object in a sense rather than the people who might benefit from it because you cannot identify at the particular time you are consulting the people who would benefit from it.
  (Mr Torkildsen) Not necessarily. We do have partnership arrangements with the business community within the city to ensure that their views are taken on board about opportunities that they perhaps missed. So it is not purely a reactionary consultation exercise; we do look very positively about the opportunity for the city. We have as well conducted research and then we look at the surveys that are conducted about how occupants of tall buildings perceive that accommodation and how they feel about working or living in those buildings. Going back to comments made earlier about who would be the appropriate occupants of the building, I think if people have the choice and they can decide whether they want to live in a tall building or not, it makes a great deal of difference about whether they want to be there or not.

Sir Paul Beresford

  188. Have you done any research to see if there had been an attitude change? I can think of Battersea Power Station where there was an absolute uproar about a big build and now, if you try to take a brick out of it, there is a scream.
  (Mr Torkildsen) I think you are right, there has been a change in attitude towards tall buildings.

  189. A positive one?
  (Mr Torkildsen) Yes, I think so. There have been certain people who have always enjoyed living in tall buildings, for example down at the Barbican, and I can think of other examples as well across the country.

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