Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Regeneration Practice (TAB 01)

TALL BUILDINGS: THE CHOICES WE FACE

The importance of the choices we have to make and whether in the present movement to erect new tall buildings we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960's.

  Pressure from the office market for tall buildings, particularly in London, is the result of a progressive reduction in available development space in a crowded island. The issues under examination by the Committee in this Inquiry raise fundamental questions about the operation of an expanding market economy in a democracy where the demands on space are increasingly in competition with public demands to protect views, daylight, civic character, the environment and affordable homes.

  The choices we face require us to find sustainable solutions to retaining our international competitiveness without the unacceptable by-products of growth; unsustainable demands on mobility, environmental or micro-climatic damage, overshadowing, the destruction of the civic quality of place or the obliteration of important views. Solutions to tall buildings are likely to be highly contentious because we still fail to find solutions for the public goods required to service existing growth. For example, the structural deficit in affordable homes in London for key workers. The Government must face up to this by major planning reform to deliver the public goods and design quality required to sustain growth alongside solutions for tall buildings. The alternative is to risk our future competitiveness because growth in tall buildings may become almost impossible in future if this issue is not addressed, due to the public outcry against politically unacceptable levels of damage to the public realm. We should learn from the evidence of unpopularity of the poor town centre developments of the 1960's which stripped many of our towns and cities of civic quality and delight.

Who should lead the process of making choices? Whether those making decisions are sufficiently accountable to the public and how far tall buildings should be allowed to block existing views?

  Market-led growth in tall buildings is essential to our future competitiveness, but the choices we face can no longer be led by a market regulated by a weak and reactive planning system. The market priority in the development control process is already responsible for urban abandonment and growth at low density in the suburbs which has driven unsustainable demands for mobility, and placed Britain in the slow lane in transport in Europe.

  The European Convention on Human Rights requires third party representation in the planning process. But while representations from special interest groups must be heard and taken into account in any adjudication process on tall buildings, it would be equally wrong to allow special interest groups to lead the timing or the result. This would place accountability above quality of choice at the expense of economic competitiveness, as we have seen at Terminal 5.

  The potential impact of high rise structures as a solution to market growth is far greater than in medium rise development, therefore a very high level of skills is required to make the quality choices we need to make. The skills required should be gathered into expert urban panels comprising urban design, architecture, historic and civic interests.

  Historically, urban design and architecture are celebrations of growth. These interests are an essential part of any adjudication process on tall buildings to ensure a sufficiently high standard of design and siting. However, celebrating growth is a visionary quality which places value in the city of the future, potentially at the expense of valuing the city of the past and present. Conversely, historic and civic interest groups must be taken account of in any adjudication to ensure choices on tall buildings do not destroy the vitality of civic place, or obliterate important views. Equally, historic and civic interests will place high value on the city of the past and present, with the potential of stopping growth in its tracks.

  Therefore, the urban panels must share three qualities:

    —  no one interest should dominate within the urban panels and they must be beyond reproach;

    —  they must take full account of all third party objections, and to state how they have done this in any decision in a demonstrably democratic way and;

    —  the process of adjudication must be framed within strict timescales to protect our economic competitiveness.

  The wider impact of tall buildings upon public goods should be refined into impact fees, determined outside the process of spatial adjudication, within local neighbourhood hearings in a reformed planning system. This will offer certainty, equity and speed to the process.

The role of Tall Buildings in achieving high densities in residential areas; the provision of offices for certain types of global companies; and as a means of contributing to the civic realm of our cities;

Where tall buildings should be located:

  There is a need to stimulate "polycentric" growth around suburban transport interchanges to begin the process of a more sustainable pattern of urban development, reducing mobility demands into the city core to sustainable levels. Tall buildings of the highest design quality, constructed at these interchanges, would signify a new civic age in urban growth. However, site assembly is likely to be complex, development to raise strong objections and delivery to be slow. Fiscal measures are required to draw the market to such locations. This has proved successful in the Enterprise Zones where the market has brought major investment to our derelict docklands by skewing the fiscal environment to stimulate growth. Without a bold vision of a more sustainable city, backed by Government, the process of urban strangulation caused by market-led growth driving unsustainable mobility demands is set to continue.

  Implementation of new development centres in the suburbs is likely to take decades. In the short and medium term, tall buildings will need to be allowed within the city core. They can enhance the beauty of our cities providing visual delight, a counterpoint in urban scale and exhilaration. But equally, without wider reforms in the planning system they are likely to be regarded by many, simply as symbols of an unattainable lifestyle, the destruction of public place or civic values, or the steady erosion of the quality of urban life.

  Masterplans of acceptable locations for tall buildings in the city core are not required for several reasons:

    (a)  Such plans reflect the views of a single design office or architect. Why exclude the "quirks of the market" from our consideration. An unlimited amount of human creativity is surely preferable to the views of a few, albeit notable creative urban designers. We should not repeat the mistakes of the plan-led development control system which has become an inflexible and reactive burden upon growth. The development of the unplanned medieval city demonstrates the essentially human quality which delights, informs and enriches our enjoyment of the civic realm.

    (b)  Such plans, being demand-led, will inevitably propose clusters of tall buildings, whereas, individual beacons spread around the city will have a reduced negative impact on the environment, daylighting and in reducing concentrations of demand for mobility. Conversely, individual spires offer the best chance of complementing the scale of the surrounding civic realm, avoiding obliteration of special views, providing focal points for sustainable growth centres and navigation aides for the pedestrian.

    (c)  Such plans will inevitably become visual tools to skew opinion towards market-led choices. There would be more justification for "civic masterplans" to assist in deciding on the location of tall buildings, recording the delights of special views, street markets, public squares, river and canalways, cultural and ethnic centres, bus, and rail stops and important historic buildings and places.

Whether the Government should have a more explicit policy on the subject.

  A blue print for sustainable growth in the suburbs backed by fiscal incentives and major reforms to the planning system are essential elements of a comprehensive planning and regeneration strategy which the Government should adopt. Planning reforms should include a regional planning mechanism to adjudicate on tall buildings. As part of this, Government guidance is needed to define the effects on micro-climate and ecology of tall building design, views of special civic importance, guidance on safe escape and daylighting, standards of construction, criteria for access to public transport and other matters.


 
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