Memorandum by The Royal Town Planning
Institute (TAB 45)
1. The Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the
House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government
and the Regions has resolved to undertake an inquiry into Tall
Buildings. The Sub-Committee will wish to consider the following:
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 enhancing
the beauty of our cities;
where tall buildings should be located,
including what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the location
of tall buildings, and how far they should be allowed to block
existing views; and whether they should be clustered or dotted;
whether in the present movement to
erect new tall buildings we are in danger of repeating the mistakes
of the 1960s;
whether those making decisions are
sufficiently accountable to the public; and
whether the Government should have
a more explicit policy on the subject.
2. The inquiry is very timely coming in
the wake of the consultation by English Heritage and the Commission
for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) on draft guidance
on tall buildings and recent controversial planning applications.
The planning and design issues have become matters of even greater
interest since the 11 September terrorist attack on the World
Trade Centre in New York. That has raised very real additional
issues of building standards and evacuation procedures, in addition
to whether landmark buildings are by their very nature at greater
risk of terrorist attack. It remains to be seen whether 11 September
will have a long term impact on the potential occupancy of tall
buildings and hence on the economics of their development, particularly
as many such proposals seem highly speculative in their funding
and occupancy arrangements.
3. A first issue to be clarified by the
inquiry is what the Sub-Committee means by "tall buildings".
Any definition would include very tall buildingsperhaps
in excess of thirty or forty storeysof which there are
relatively few in the UK, and those are mostly in central London
and adjoining financial districts. There are many parts of urban
Britain, however, let alone the rural areas, where the majority
of buildings may be no more than two or three storeys, and where
four storeys and over would be considered "tall"ie
taller than the average height of buildings in the vicinity. Thus
if a building, or group of buildings, is required to make some
sort of local "statement" it simply needs to be taller
than the general height of buildings in the locality. Relative
height might be more significant than absolute height.
4. A second issue is that the "statement"
made by a tall building, or a group of tall buildings, may be
an economic one as well as, or rather than, a design one. Tall
buildings generally result from the interaction between land values
and urban design. This is perhaps a very simplistic statement,
but the Institute would hope that tall buildings are not purely
the result of the designer's whim, the developer's ego or the
lure of large financial rewards for them. The commercial centres
of our towns and cities, transport nodes, and other areas of high
accessibility tend to create the highest land values. Similarly,
smaller centres in the suburbs will generally support higher values
than the surrounding residential areas.
5. There are pressures, therefore, for a
higher density of development on the higher value land. One way
of achieving the higher density is to build upwardsand
use tall buildings. At the same time, it is argued that this leaves
more space at ground level for access, movement, circulation and
other functions that realistically can only take place on the
ground. The Institute does not accept however that pressures for
higher density must result in very tall buildings and it would
point to, for example, the award winning and much acclaimed Broadgate
development in the City of London as evidence that high density
can be achieved on a human scale with quality public spaces, without
resorting to towers.
6. This leads the Institute to the conclusion
that where a local planning authority has something to say about
the location and design of tall buildings, or about the principles
of urban design generally, it should say it in its development
plan. It may be, in a historic city, for example, that centrally
located tall buildings would detract from the townscape of the
historic core, or be uncomfortably juxtaposed with the castle
or cathedral, while more peripheral locations would damage the
overall setting of the city. In such cases, it would be perfectly
reasonable for the development plan, and supplementary planning
guidance (SPG), to fix rigid limits to the height of any new development
in different parts of the city. Conversely, where regeneration
of a former industrial city was a priority, it would be equally
reasonable for the development plan to encourage the development
of tall buildings, perhaps providing development guidance in SPG,
to mark the phoenix rising from the ashes of dereliction.
7. The principal points here are that:
policies on tall buildings are largely
a local concern (accepting the national interest in central London);
their inclusion in the development
plan provides transparency and allows the community to have its
say before policies are adopted and implemented.
This approach also signals a local planning
authority's intentions and allows bodies such as English Heritage
and CABE to make an early input on proposals that have the potential
to impact significantly on the townscape.
8. The proposals of this past week in the
Planning Green Paper Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change
for replacing the current development plan system with Local Development
Frameworks need to be fully considered to assess their implications
for tall buildings. However, the proposed area approach seems
as if it would be a good mechanism for dealing with the site specific
criteria of tall buildings policy.
The Role of Tall Buildings
Achieving high densities in residential areas
9. The theory may sound attractive, but
it is perilously close to the experiments of the 1960s (see below)
that led to "gap-toothed" planningtall blocks
in a sea of meaningless open spaces. Where tall buildings are
used exclusively for housing, one of the difficulties is always
going to be creating any sense of ownership, on the part of residents,
of the space between the blocks at ground level. If people do
not feel they own this space, there is no common interest in its
management leading progressively to alienation and dereliction.
10. This was clearly demonstrated by the
1960s experience. Achieving high residential densities in tall
buildings was not a solution for social housing, or for housing
families. More recently, there have been indications that it may
work better for young professionals, or single people. Where incomes
are relatively higher, management and maintenance costs can be
more readily taken on board, and a sense of ownership fostered.
Better still is the mixed use of tall buildings, where commercial
or retail occupiers can meet much of the management and maintenance
cost and a residential element contributes to the vitality of
the centre after office hours.
Offices for global companies
11. This is probably where the developer
interest in tall buildings lies. Global headquarters, located
on the right site, can become impressive landmarks, foster inward
investment, and are seen by some contribute to the recognition
of "world class" cities. Nevertheless, it is important
to keep this in perspective. Occupation by a multinational or
global company is only the use of the tall building. It is not
a reason for departing from a strategy for the location/development
of tall buildings.
Enhancing the beauty of cities
12. It is easy to get carried away herebeauty,
it is claimed, is in the eye of the beholder. Cities can be considered
attractive when they accommodate many and various tall buildings
in clustersas evidenced in Manhattan and the centres of
many stylish Far Eastern cities. In other locations, tall buildings
might be regarded variously as incongruous, compromising local
character and distinctiveness, or injurious to amenity, to vistas,
or to skylines. "Beauty" and "enhancement"
rely very much on the quality of the buildings and their relationship
on the ground. The acceptability of a tall building will always
depend on the character of its surroundings, and whether this
can be altered without sacrificing valued attributes or local
distinctiveness. The answer depends as much on location as on
the skill and innovation of the urban designer and architector
on the eye of the beholder!
13. The Institute has observed that much
design interest in tall buildings has focussed on either their
effect on historic views (see paragraph 6) or on their impact
on the panorama. It would urge however that no less important
is the visual impact of tall buildings on their immediate environment,
at street level. There is a real challenge to address in the way
these buildings are designed to meet the street and to create
successful public spaces in and around such buildings. This challenge
is often not taken on by the developer and their designer who
are focussed on what towers above to the detriment of creating
places for people. Additionally, the impact of a proposed tall
building on the local microclimates needs to be satisfactorily
addressed during the design and planning application processes.
14. Dotting tall buildings around cities
completely loses the impact and sense of their importance. It
also has the disadvantage of dwarfing attractive smaller buildings,
without any commensurate benefit, and the potential to destroy
protected and cherished views. In considering how far tall buildings
should be allowed to block existing views, it needs to be borne
in mind that, in the UK, there is no right to a private view.
However, some views and vistas in the public realm may be the
key to the character of a place, or the setting of an important
building. In these terms, the effect of tall buildings can only
be assessed locally.
15. The Institute has little enthusiasm
for mechanistic approaches such as concentric rings on maps, with
maximum building heights decreasing outwards, away from the city
centre. The impact of tall buildings in other parts of the world
is usually their location in close proximity to one another in
clusters that are recognised as being the commercial hub of the
city. This may originally have been a historical accident, but
the cluster has subsequently taken shape as a result of intervention
by planners and urban designers.
16. Despite this concentration in commercial
areas, tall buildings need not be single use buildings. Office,
residential and retail uses are an attractive combination for
those who work in pressurised jobs and wish to live close to their
17. The "mistakes of the 1960s"
almost all related to tall buildings used for social rather than
market housing and, to a lesser extent, for speculative office
development. The problems have been well documented, and the lessons
18. The governments of the day used generous
subsidy regimes to encourage local housing authorities to build
"high rise flats"often 20-30 storeys highor
deck access housing complexes. Such development was a panic "solution"
to meeting the demand for social housing arising from the widespread
clearance of high density Victorian terraces and tenements, and
the perceived shortage of land for the replacement housing.
19. The tall housing blocks were built to
rigid cost regimes, mainly by systems building techniques that
had been developed inadequately, and generally were not the most
attractive of buildings. Of those that have survived, despite
several external "makeovers" in the intervening years,
few would qualify for awards for their contribution to the urban
environment. Schemes were generally built to a masterplan, but
this often related inadequately to the local urban form and topography.
As a consequence, many of the high rise blocks appeared as misfits,
rising from unattractive hard areas of car parking and servicing,
or neglected landscaping, and with no apparent pattern or reason
in their location.
20. The social problems that subsequently
emerged on such estates have been well documented. Many of the
problems appear to have arisen from shared lifts, stairways, access
corridors, etca lack of private defensible space in generalrather
than from any inherent problems in living many storeys above the
ground. The final irony is that it has also been amply demonstrated
that good design can achieve greater overall densities in traditional
low rise housing than ever was achieved by the high rise "mistakes".
21. The Institute does not see this as an
exceptional issue. Provided that policies and proposals for tall
buildings are fully set out in the development plan, with additional
detail or design briefs added through supplementary planning guidance,
there is no need to treat tall buildings any differently from
any other development proposals as far as public accountability
is concerned. Not only will proposals have been subject to public
consultation, but there will also have been the opportunity to
include any special management and infrastructure requirements
of tall buildings in the policy and to test such policy across
planning authority boundaries.
22. As indicated in paragraph 7 (above),
the Institute is not convinced that there is the need for any
additional planning policy guidance at national level. There cannot
be a role for anything other than the most general statement from
the general design guidance that
might appear in the proposed revision of PPG 1;
a clear steer towards the inclusion
of policies on tall buildings in development plans to introduce
certainty and ensure transparency; and
perhaps, encouragement to local planning
authorities at least to examine the potential of tall buildings
in view of their possibility of maximising the use of land.
23. All other work to determine appropriateness,
distribution, size, form, design, etc can only properly be undertaken
at the local level. It is consideration of local circumstances,
local topography, local townscape and local development economics
that will determine whether tall buildings are appropriate in
a particular location.
24. The Institute is concerned however by
press reports that the Building Regulations do not include particular
standards for evacuation form tall buildings. It is appalled that
the construction industry can even consider developing proposals
for such structures unless and until this matter is satisfactorily
addressed. It would also urge the Committee to seek evidence from
the emergency services on the issues.
25. The Committee's inquiry provides a key
forum in which to test many of the myths of the cases for and
against tall buildings. Much of the evidence will undoubtedly
come from those with strongly held views. It is essential to draw
out the genuine public interest concerns. The Institute would
welcome the opportunity to expand on this submission in oral evidence.