Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Michael R Jackson (TAB 08)

WHAT IS A TALL BUILDING?

  Tall is a relative word. A four-storey apartment block may appear tall amongst bungalows. A 10-storey apartment block appears tall in the average town, but would be un-noticed in a city centre. Thus I shall try to use "tall" to refer to something that is at least twice as high as the average height of most adjacent buildings.

1.  ARE TALL BUILDINGS APPROPRIATE FOR ACHIEVING HIGH DENSITIES IN RESIDENTIAL AREAS? IS THE PRESENT MOVEMENT TO ERECT NEW TALL BUILDINGS IN DANGER OF REPEATING THE MISTAKES OF THE 1960S?

  1.1  For this study, residents might usefully be split into adults with a pre-16 child and, those without children, or without children under 16. The retired form a sub-group of the latter. This division crudely affects the relevance of considerations such as:

    —  The requirement for ready access to safe play-areas.

    —  The apartment size needed.

    —  The affordability of the price.

    —  The importance of private outdoor space.

    —  The depressive effects of isolation.

    —  The importance of casual and controllable contact with neighbours.

  1.2  Research on the failures of the 1960s will give insight into analysis based on such division and considerations. My pragmatic view is that high apartments are best suited to adults under 70, either before they have children or, when the family has or soon will have no teenagers. This will include a lot of single people.

  To the extent that such people wish to live in apartments, being able to get more floor area for their money, and being free of the chores of garden and house maintenance, they are appropriate.

  1.3  But, especially when such tall apartments are situated in towns, there is a planning myth that such occupiers of apartments will not need a car each. Except in the largest cities, most couples will both be working and often require a car for work. Insufficient parking provision creates a nuisance for occupants of nearby streets. Unless this problem is addressed, it would be sufficient grounds to oppose tall residential buildings.

  1.4  Another concern, arising from the proposition in 1.2, is the extent to which such residential development provision addresses the socio-economic characteristics of housing need. Given that an increasing proportion of those needing housing is in minimum-wage or part-time employment, it is not clear that developers of tall apartments will choose to meet such incomes. Their needs are likely to be met with the properties from which those preferring tall apartments are likely to move. Whether this will meet social need requires careful analysis.

  1.5  Thus if tall apartments are inhabited by those who choose them, rather than those for whom there is no other choice, these tall apartments may not give rise to the problems with the high-rise housing of the 1960s. But they are unlikely to be chosen without adequate parking being available, except in the heart of those of our biggest cities where public transport is plentiful.

2.  ARE THEY SUITABLE PROVISION FOR THE OFFICES OF CERTAIN TYPES OF GLOBAL COMPANY?

  Tall office buildings are suitable for offices if there is adequate public transport for employees. New York has plenty of tall offices and is building more. But a weekly ticket for the whole of the vast New York bus and subway system costs only £13 a week! The ancient subway creaks—but it delivers! The buses are mainly very new.

  Buchanan was ignored in the UK in the 1960s. Only when the government puts £s, instead of words only, behind affordable integrated public transport can we accommodate more dense office space.

3.  DO TALL BUILDINGS ENHANCE THE BEAUTY OF OUR CITIES?

  A city of over one million is hardly a city without a tall building. Otherwise it is a sprawl. But tall buildings only enhance a city if a competent team of planners, architects and engineers designs and builds them. Again, New York is an example of such good design.

  Unfortunately the UK planning control system is so sloppy, clubby and under-resourced that even simple commercial buildings are seldom ever built in accordance with the appearance shown in the drawings and elevations presented at the approval stage. "Unforeseen problems" and "adjustments to keep within budget" seem to be passed on the nod by cosy developer/planner meetings in city halls.

  Until the government tackles this situation, it would be aesthetically dangerous to approve any new tall buildings in the UK.

4.  WHERE SHOULD TALL BUILDINGS BE LOCATED?

  Tall buildings should be located near the hubs and nodes of effective and cheap, area-wide and integrated public transport systems

5.  SHOULD THERE BE ANY RESTRICTIONS ON LOCATION?

  Surprisingly, tall buildings can enhance rather than dwarf older buildings such as churches—provided the architect is skilled. Indeed, they need to be close to other buildings to achieve their uplifting impact—just like the spires of cathedrals.

  Restrictions should be placed mainly in consideration of the capacity of public transport systems in the location.

6.  SHOULD THEY BE CLUSTERED OR DOTTED?/SHOULD THEY BE ALLOWED TO BLOCK EXISTING VIEWS?

  I prefer cities where there are two or three clusters of the highest buildings. This necessarily means that additions to a cluster will block some views from other buildings.

7.  ARE THOSE MAKING DECISIONS SUFFICIENTLY ACCOUNTABLE TO THE PUBLIC?

  Consultation in the UK planning process as a whole is only a token process. For example, there is no realistic appeal against a granted permission, however great the suspicion of insider deals. Whilst whole towns may suffer for decades as the result of a bad or devious planning decision, no individual can usually show the resultant loss that might support court action. The ombudsman keeps clear of this tricky area.

  There is no reason to think tall building applications will be handled any more justly in this country.

8.  SHOULD GOVERNMENT HAVE A MORE EXPLICIT POLICY?

  The experience-based ideals that led to the structure planning legislation of the early 1970s were watered down in the long Conservative government of the 1980s. Planners now juggle with population targets and brownfield bonuses to maximise support grants. Overall conceptual planning of towns and cities is constrained by these goals and constraints, and by the need to sell and develop local authority owned land to generate capital.

  A policy on tall buildings alone would only become another constraint to be circumvented. It would only be meaningful in the context of a thorough investigation of the effectiveness of the present regional, structural and local planning hierarchy. The disasters created by badly placed and crudely designed tall buildings are not likely to be any worse than those that arise from other bad planning decisions.


 
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Prepared 22 January 2002