Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Freeman Historic Properties (TAB 21)

  Since the 1970's I have been concerned with the built environment, planning and historic buildings in both a personal and professional capacity. I served on English Heritage's London Advisory Committee from 1986 until July 2001. I have lived and worked in New York City and London and am familiar with many cities that have tall buildings in the United Kingdom and overseas.

  My small company specialises in acquiring and regenerating listed buildings "at risk". At the recent Public Inquiry into proposals to develop the 600' Heron/Bishopsgate Tower in the City of London, I gave evidence on behalf of Save Britain's Heritage.

  My comments on the issue of Tall Buildings are as follows:

  1.  Most British cities grew rapidly in the late 18th and 19th centuries and are characterised by low and middle rise-developments, punctuated by occasional tall buildings—usually built during the 20th century—either singly or in groups. Some of the groups were planned but others result from ad hoc schemes which found favour at a point in time.

  2.  Through views, open skies and wide panoramas are also characteristic of most British cities. Dense development of high rises, as found at Canary Wharf for example, are unusual, and "walls" of towers marching along street frontages are virtually unknown.

  3.  Many cities have great cathedrals or castles which are intended to dominate the urban scene, to raise the spirits or to awe the spectator (St Paul's Cathedral, Peterborough Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle). Views of these buildings and others are important, and the value of them as symbols cannot but be demeaned if tall buildings are allowed to overtop them or to stand close by. Without statutory protection it is difficult to see how this can be prevented.

  Most major European cities have rules about tall buildings, their height and disposition eg. Paris.

  4.  Tall buildings always have an impact far beyond their immediate locale. Their relationship with each other and the surrounding scene is clearly apparent over great distances. They have a capacity to block, frame or disrupt well-known vistas. Tall buildings can dominate the local scene or pinpoint a place amid unmemorable urban sprawl.

  Other issues arise in connection with tall towers such as overshadowing, loss of open sky, air turbulence and visual contrast/incongruities.

  Given their impact, tall buildings should be subject to independent Environmental Impact Studies that must address these and other relevant matters. "Clustering" or "dotting" should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

  5.  Where tall buildings are deemed to be acceptable, particular attention should be paid to materials, glazing colour, orientation, the design of the topmost storeys and general attractiveness at ground level. In this context Vancouver's tall buildings are an object lesson in elegance and beauty. The treatment of the ground floors of these buildings and the spaces immediately around them are in scale, informal and often festive. Common features are small gardens, fountains, patios, kiosks, cafes, excellent paving, bicycle stands, seating, planted tubs and flowers together with other diminutive and informal amenities.

  6.  In certain areas such as Canary Wharf, tall buildings are proving to be an excellent means of re-generating an area economically. However it should be borne in mind that Westminster City Council, for instance, has maintained a high level of prosperity and economic success in a part of London which largely comprises conservation areas, listed buildings and relatively low rise development. Locations in Westminster are sought after by international companies. Poorer neighbourhoods in Westminster have been regenerated.

  7.  It should be remembered in considering proposals for tall buildings that the careful arrangement of low-rise buildings can often offer the equivalent amount of space. Sir Terry Farrell has demonstrated this in his scheme for the redevelopment of the site currently occupied by the Marsham Street Towers in Westminster.

  8.  If tall towers are to be allowed, even encouraged, then a working mechanism should be established to bring about the demolition of unpopular, intrusive towers which have never found favour with the public, for example the Hilton Hotel at Hyde Park Corner.

  9.  Developers, designers and would be tenants of tall towers often present their own short-term immediate interests as being of importance to the economic well-being of a city or neighbourhood. This reasoning is often specious. Tall towers are not always symbols of economic success. Some have proved to be white elephants—Centre Point in London was empty for years, representing an enormous waste of space and resources.

  Tall towers are likely to be costlier to build following the events of 11 September. Insurance charges can be expected to rise, building procedures will probably tighten and fire and escapes systems are bound to be improved.

  10.  In many parts of the country more conventional redevelopment schemes and adaptive reuse of older buildings will often produce a more lasting, far- reaching regenerative effect than the construction of one or two tall towers. There will be less disruption during a construction period and a greater variety of employment available in a large number of small, varying buildings.

  11.  While high densities of occupation can be achieved in tall buildings, the arrival and departure of many people at peak times can place intolerable pressures on transport facilities and other infrastructure.

  12.  High-rise residential living is unattractive to many people, especially families and the elderly, although it may be ideal for students and people without children.

  For all the above reasons I feel that new policy should be developed to deal with proposals for the construction of tall towers in future. The tone of new policy is ably established in the new consultative document on Tall Buildings, produced by the CABE and English Heritage. This line of thinking should be developed further.

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Prepared 22 January 2002