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Cities raise sights
Planning – 19 Junr 2009

Developers and councils remain determined to pursue tall building proposals in the teeth of the recession despite uncertainty over their benefits and drawbacks, Mark Smulian discovers.

A severe economic recession is supposed to be under way. But you would not necessarily reach that conclusion from the number of successful permissions secured by developers who want to build skyscrapers in our major cities.

In an era of tight finance, it may seem surprising that approval is being sought for structures so notoriously costly to build. Yet last month alone, Land Securities gained consent from the City of London Corporation for the 38-storey "walkie-talkie" tower, Devington Homes received the green light for a 31-storey residential tower in Plymouth and Salhia Investments was told it could go ahead on a 27-storey tower next to Birmingham's Bullring.

At the same time, Land Securities and Delancey withdrew an application to build two 42-storey towers at Clapham Junction. However, this was not because of any question about the project's viability, rather that London Borough of Wandsworth planners objected to a lack of affordable housing and transport benefits. Meanwhile, the south London authority is wringing its hands in frustration at the DCLG's decision to call in the 32 and 42-storey towers proposed for the borough's Ram Brewery site.

So is the London Borough of Ealing, where the DCLG has called in developer Glenkerrin's proposed 24-storey tower at Ealing Broadway. The same developer drew some consolation from finally winning permission from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in April for its 62-storey mixed-use Pride Tower on the Isle of Dogs. There seems to be no shortage of architects who want to meet clients' needs by building high or of developers who can afford this.

Skyscrapers have been around since Chicago's Home Insurance Building was erected in 1885. They define the skyline of many major cities and have been assumed by local authorities around the world to signal a prosperity that will attract further investment. London Docklands struggled until Canary Wharf was built, showing that Olympia & York, one of the world's largest developers, had faith in the area.

Towers often prove controversial. Because they are visible for miles around, public feeling is inevitably aroused by their height, mass, design and visual impact. The Elizabeth House development, proposed by P&O to replace a nondescript 1960s office block at London's Waterloo station, ran into intense criticism from Westminster City Council, which argued that it would ruin views from Parliament Square.

Last winter, Belfast's 90 million Aurora Tower was rejected by the Northern Ireland Planning Service in part because of its visual impact (Planning, 16 January, p4). The decision led to a bizarre row between civil servants and environment minister Sammy Wilson, who supported the project. It remains under consideration.

According to urban design expert Duncan Bowie, concentration on the appearance and visual impact of towers misses several important points. Bowie, now a reader in urban planning at London Metropolitan University, wrote the housing section of the London Plan. "The main issue with tall buildings has been views, but there are much more fundamental considerations," he maintains. "They put pressure on transport, infrastructure and affordability. That gets lost in debates about external appearance."

He puts the willingness of some London councils to entertain towers down to the belief that they result in the capital being taken seriously by industry and commerce as a world city. "The CBI has taken the view that high-rise is important to London's economic success, but that is questionable. I doubt whether it is relevant to economic success, which is a matter of appropriateness rather than just size. Building high tends to come from certain architectural approaches. That's the danger of the design-led model."

High-rise living has largely fallen out of favour for social housing following some of the disasters perpetrated in post-war estates, although it can be sought after at the top end of the market. However, the numbers rarely stack up, whether the affordable homes are provided in the tower itself or elsewhere. According to Bowie, arguments that tower blocks are effective generators of abnormally large subsidies for affordable homes fall down because of their high construction costs.

"One of the common claims made for high-rise is that it generates more value to pay for affordable homes," he notes. "That is a highly questionable equation and simply does not apply to most high-rises. If you build above 11 or 12 storeys, building costs go very high. At 35 storeys or more they are around 4,000 per square metre, against 1,500 for mid-rise.

So unless the proposed scheme is on a premium site, it is not a cost-effective option." Former London mayor Ken Livingstone's argument that tall buildings would cross-subsidise affordable housing rested on a false assumption, he contends. "You can see that, because few house builders build at high-rise levels." Even so, successful landmark towers can add greatly to an architect's reputation. Designing one that works is an attractive professional challenge for leading lights in the field.

But architects' opinions are only one factor, says RIBA executive director for professional services Richard Brindley. "There are various drivers behind tall buildings and the main one is the cities themselves," he explains. "Politicians like iconic buildings such as the Gherkin and Shard of Glass to emphasise their city's status and attract investment. The Gherkin is now an important part of the London skyline."

He points to Birmingham's experience with the Rotunda. "It never worked well as offices and has been refurbished as luxury apartments. It has kept the tower element and is seen as a statement about the city's status," he reflects. "Canary Wharf changed perceptions of Docklands and the Lloyd's Building did the same for the City of London. Lloyd's is not particularly high but when it was built 20 years ago it said: 'Here is this old institution in a very modern building.' It made people think differently."

Brindley agrees that developers need to balance skyscrapers' ability to make best use of costly city centre land against the expense of building high. As for architects, he concedes: "To an extent, architectural ego is involved. They build tall because they can. But it is also about what buildings say. Architects want to use the latest technology available. For example, you couldn't build tall before lifts were invented. There are always newer technologies."

Making statements certainly lies behind Birmingham City Council's welcoming attitude towards towers, at least in the city centre. City centre team development planning manager Andrew Round says the council has even encouraged some developers to build higher than they originally intended. "The council is keen on tall buildings because of the design quality they bring. In part they make a statement about a successful city centre, but they also make good use of scarce land as long as they are near to public transport," he explains.

Birmingham is also reviewing its 2003 design guidance on high buildings, which limited towers' height to 242m above sea level. The authority has particularly encouraged tall structures on the ridge running through the city centre to form an imposing cluster. The height limits were never rigidly applied anyway. Miller Developments' 150m-high V Building reaches 291m above sea level, while the former NatWest Tower on Colmore Row is to be replaced by a 36-storey tower built by British Land that reaches 311m.

Wandsworth's case shows why an authority might want a tower both for its image and for the scale of planning benefits available. The Ram Brewery site would bring with it 41 million to sort out the town centre and provide affordable housing. "There is no blanket policy on height. It depends on a development being in the right place. Tall buildings can be a statement and a well-designed, high-quality one can be a catalyst for regeneration and investment," maintains a council spokesman.

"The call-in means that we are now looking at a long and expensive inquiry, which is frustrating," he adds. Yet when you consider the complex mix of issues such as size, design and sustainability and more subjective considerations surrounding a place's status, image and ambitions, it is not surprising that ministers want to keep tabs on our early 21st century urban landmarks.

Building up benefits

The advantages claimed for tall buildings have long been a matter of speculation and dispute. So last year the British Property Federation tried to quantify their effects by commissioning research from the Colin Buchanan consultancy.

The firm found that towers encourage employment density, improved productivity by making deeper business specialisation viable, knowledge sharing, increased competition and economies of scale. It estimated that doubling employment density in any given area could stimulate a 12.5 per cent increase in output per worker, rising to 22 per cent in the service sector.

Buchanan recognised that building up is often the only way to achieve increased density in city centres facing land supply and conservation constraints. "If you visit any of the world's major commercial cities, you will almost always see a cluster of tall buildings at their heart," it reminded the federation.

"It is clear that increased commercial density, and in some cases tall buildings, in the right locations can have positive economic impacts. In some cases, almost always in central business districts, those benefits can be delivered, or at least maximised, only by the provision of commercial tall buildings."