Memorandum by Oxford City Council (TAB
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
Oxford has a tight green belt, which restricts
land supply. This has resulted in efficient use of the existing
land available for development through infilling, raising densities
and use of previously developed sites. Prior to the publication
of PPG3, the average residential density in Oxford was 54 dwellings
per acre (higher than most shires). Post PPG3 (March 2000) much
higher densities have been achieved through good design and lower
car parking standards, as most sites have good access to public
transport. This approach to raising densities has been adopted
in preference to the erection of tall buildings.
Global companies are generally attracted to
major cities and financial centres rather than cities such as
Oxford. Whilst Oxford is an attractive historic town, its economy
is based on higher education, hospitals, local government, in
addition to its traditional manufacturing base, and most businesses
are related to these core activities. Oxford also attracts large
numbers of visitors, as it is also a good sub-regional shopping
centre and tourist centre. In essence therefore, Oxford is a successful
employment centre for the City, County and surrounding region
without global companies or tall buildings.
Suggestions that tall buildings are necessary
for future economic prosperity should be treated with caution.
Tall buildings can undoubtedly fulfil an important role in accommodating
office-orientated businesses and other service-sector activities,
but they would need to have the advantage of congestion-free transport
infrastructure and broad-band ICT infrastructure. This is less
appropriate for a historic city like Oxford, but might be located
in outer parts of the City, for instance, the Oxford Science Park,
if planning criteria allowed. Indeed the Council is keen to maximise
the use of its science and business parks in its economic development
and job creation.
Oxford has not encouraged tall buildings as
the conservation of the character of the City has long been identified
as one of the main objectives of planning policy in Oxford. In
particular, the relationship between the built up area of the
City, and the open spaces in and around it, makes a major contribution
to this character.
The sustainability of tall buildings, in particular
in terms of construction, transport and long term flexibility
Sustainable design should introduce economic
benefits in terms of cost saving in materials, energy and water
use. The cost effectiveness of good design can go far beyond these
tangible factors. However, any tall building proposal should be
examined for its sustainability in the widest sense, by considering
its economic and social impact, based upon whole life costs and
In the past there have been many problems associated
with the construction of tall buildings, the most fundamental
being the materials chosen for the frame, the cladding, and the
particular systems of construction. These have given rise to a
considerable number of building defects, which in some instances
have become chronic through lack of available finance to put them
right. The cost of repair and maintenance is directly proportional
to the initial cost of construction, and where this is applied
to a poorly built tall building, the running costs, and consequently
the sustainability, become questionable. There have been too many
bad examples of unsuitably sited, poorly designed and detailed,
badly constructed and/or incompetently managed tall buildings.
It is also the case that the design and construction
of innovative tall buildings push out the frontiers of building
and environmental technology. This may also lead us to think that
in the right place, a sustainably designed tall building can contribute
positively to city life, in particular by facilitating higher
densities. However, good practice suggests that office buildings
are best kept at heights of three or four storeys, as this generally
gives the best trade off between heat losses through the roof
and floor, which decrease with more floors and usage of lift and
other mechanical services.
In residential settings, tall buildings may
not give the increased density that they are intended for. Traditionally
they are surrounded by vast areas of ill-planned open space, while
the increase in car ownership, and the consequent need for parking,
can off-set the saving in land take up.
The regulatory changes to take account of the
concerns raised since September 2001 will make building design
more difficult and more expensive. In particular attention will
need to be given to areas vulnerable to bombs such as underground
car parks and basements below tall buildings. The current review
of Part A of the building regulations needs to take on board amendments
to the rules, and exceptions on progressive collapse of tall buildings,
which at present give no differentiation between five and fifty
storey buildings. Other design issues involving the spread of
fire and evacuation procedures, will also need attention.
With regard to long term flexibility of use,
refurbishment costs are high for tall buildings, whether they
be for changing offices to housing or housing to student accommodation,
and are substantially higher than the cost of refurbishing low-rise
developments. Research also suggests that the cost of demolition
currently stands at one tenth of the cost of refurbishing a tall
building. Again in terms of sustainability, it would be necessary
to assess rigorously at design stage whether a future refurbishment
would be viable.
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
Oxford's Local Plan has had a long-standing
strong and effective policy on controlling the heights of buildings
(see Appendix A).22
The aims of the policies are to protect the views in and out of
Oxford (green backcloth) as well as protecting the historic skyline.
Generally, Oxford does not permit any tall buildings, either within
the central core of the city, or which would detract from the
green backcloth of views from within the city. I would not anticipate
any change from the Local Plan policies as a result of the current
Due to the importance of Oxford's architectural
heritage, reflected in the concentration of the Colleges in the
City centre, the introduction of any tall buildings would seriously
diminish its impact and attraction and obscure Oxford's existing
beautiful skyline of spires. Because the Local Plan policies on
controlling tall building has been so successful, the introduction
of almost any tall buildings would now be starkly detrimental
to the character of Oxford.
In general planning terms, the location of tall
buildings and blocking existing views, would largely depend on
the merit of an individual case. This would need to be assessed
through an analysis of the physical, social and economic impact.
In general there is a preference for clustering tall buildings,
as this would support the provision of good centralised transport
infrastructure, services and facilities for the occupants and
visitors to tall buildings.
Whether in the present movement to erect tall
buildings we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960s
No, planning now emphasizes mixed land uses
which applies to tall buildings. Unlike the 1960s, when single
residential or office uses dominated, the current preference for
a mix of uses will create more sustainable environments for people
to live, work and play in.
We are assuming that this is a reference to
tall residential blocks. From the Council's perspective as a social
landlord, there is unlikely to be any movement back towards the
construction of tall buildings. Leaving aside the social lessons
learnt, the capital costs of tall buildings is prohibitive and
has been driven further up by tighter building regulations, to
ensure increased safety. Oxford has a need for additional social
housing, however, the shortage lies in three-bed or larger family
units and not the one or two-bed flats associated with the tower
Tower blocks have been associated with anti-social
behaviour problems, sometimes as a result of concentrating families/tenants
with problems in one area or block. Noise nuisance and vandalism
of the communal areas are well documented issues. Therefore the
City Council would prefer to see low rise developments, albeit
with layouts to ensure sufficiently high densities.
Whether those making decisions are sufficiently
accountable to the public
Planning legislation, development plan procedures
and consideration of planning applications, which are functions
of democratically elected councils, all ensure that the public
are involved and consulted on all types of planning decisions.
Oxford City Council has just adopted its new modernised political
structures, which include a Cabinet and five area committees.
These have small budgets and delegated authority for some decision-making,
including relevant planning applications. This is intended to
ensure the maximum opportunity for local people to be involved
in both observing the decision-making process and contributing
to the planning debate.
Whether the Government should have a more explicit
policy on the subject
Apart from the appropriate guidance in PPGs
and controls through Building Regulations, I think it would be
unhelpful to impose explicit and prescriptive policy on the subject.
Tall buildings may still have a role in the management of sustainable
development in a small island. However, a set of approved criteria
for assessing the impact of tall buildings could be useful guidance,
possibly on similar lines to the EIAs.
If appropriate controls are enforced through
the existing statutory planning and building control systems,
they can be relied on the limit any potential negative impact
of this form of development. However, there may be a case for
the tightening of regulations for the erection of tall buildings,
through extending the requirement to carry out risk assessment
and the provision of security measures. This could run alongside
the existing regulations and the safety nets provided by BREEAM.
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