Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by National Housing Federation (TAB 22)

  The National Housing Federation represents 1,350 independent, not for profit social housing providers in England. They include housing associations, co-ops, trusts and stock transfer organisations, and they own and/or manage more than 1.7 million homes provided for affordable rent, supported housing and low cost home ownership, and deliver an increasingly diverse range of community and regeneration services.


  Demographic trends are causing household formation to increase at a rate faster than population growth. Together with the Government's target of achieving 60 per cent of new housing on brownfield sites by 2008, there is a growing pressure on planners and housing developers to achieve higher density housing schemes in urban areas, particularly in the major cities. Where there is already a shortage of housing available for rent and ownership, the pressure to "build up" is likely to increase.

  The Federation believes that tall buildings are not intrinsically good or bad forms of accommodation, but they do require:

    —  intensive housing management, which may require include a concierge and/or 'supercaretaking' service;

    —  appropriate dwelling mix, appropriate occupation levels, with sensitive allocation policies that discourage households with children being allocated high rise housing;

    —  attractive and robust design; and

    —  popular locations with good connections to the transport infrastructure and other amenities.

  Note: the DTLR Housing Investment Programme return defines "high rise" residential buildings as being six storeys or more. It is assumed that "tall buildings" for the purpose of the inquiry are considered to be higher than six storeys and are more likely to be multi storey blocks, ten storeys or more high.

  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.

  Tall buildings can play a role in ensuring that there is an appropriate amount of housing accommodation to meet the needs of local demand, and also provide the "critical mass" to support shops, local amenities and transport infrastructure. However, where people are concentrated in a relatively small area, a more intensive management approach to housing and the public realm is likely to be necessary. As for whether tall buildings enhance the beauty of cities is a matter for conjecture. Perceptions of tall buildings are often driven by the use of the building, ie, multi-storey council blocks are often perceived poorly, and luxury tall buildings tend to be perceived positively.

  It is worth making the simple point that achieving high-density housing does not necessarily require tall buildings. Some of the higher density built environments in urban areas are often characterised not by tall buildings, but by terraced housing. The issue of density and urban form was developed in Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force Report Towards an Urban Renaissance (June 1999). It usefully illustrated how a similar density could be achieved in three scenarios, the first with a single high rise building and low coverage of land, the second with low rise buildings and high coverage of land, and the third with medium rise building and medium coverage of land (figure 2.6 in the Rogers Report). A key issue was the availability of car parking space that diminished from the first to the third scenario. With car ownership, and particularly households with more than one car continuing to rise, this remains a crucial planning consideration. It also re-emphasises the importance and need for a reliable, safe, affordable public transport service and infrastructure that people want to use.

  The sustainability of tall buildings, in particular in terms of construction, transport and long term flexibility of use.

  Focusing on London as an example, the Mayor's Housing Commission Report Homes for a World City (November 2000) identified a need for 43,000 homes annually to cater for both growing and existing housing need, of which 28,000 was needed for social and intermediate housing purposes. This should be set against the identified housing capacity figure of 19,000 that is similar to the amount of housing being built in London presently. The Commission recommended that the Greater London Authority "... should consider and plan to include within the Spatial Development Strategy proposals for increasing housing capacity in London without jeopardising environmental sustainability, including the potential for increasing densities and for bringing more sites or non-residential into use."

  The Towards a London Plan (May 2001), the Mayor's Spatial Development Strategy initial proposals makes little mention of tall residential buildings as a means to delivering the 43,000 per annum needed to meet existing and future demand. However, it is clear that better land use along Urban Task Force principles will be required in order to meet the Commission's targets. It is not known whether tall buildings will be recommended to achieve them, although the opportunities that major investment in the transport infrastructure offer, such as the proposed London Crossrail, will probably lead to some sites near the development being identified as "windfall" opportunities which may be appropriate for tall buildings. If such buildings begin to receive planning permission by the respective authorities, it is likely that land prices will rise, which will have the knock-on effect of making "traditional" low/medium-rise developments less affordable in high value areas than they already are.

  More research work needs to be undertaken to understand better "what works" in terms of residential density. The London Housing Federation (one of the 10 regions of the National Housing Federation) will be commissioning a project to examine successful and unsuccessful examples of existing 'high' residential density to draw out a series of considerations and good practice guidelines. These will then form the basis of a practical "tool-kit" for use by those considering appropriate densities when developing predominantly residential schemes. The project will consider and seek answers to a number of issues, including what the most appropriate way is to measure residential density; why high density housing works for some people, but not others; how lettings policies impact on high density schemes; how cost-effective high density is when initial development savings are set against ongoing management and maintenance costs, and also how that impacts on service charges. The Federation expects the report to be published in May 2002.

  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.

  The height and density of a scheme will depend on a number of considerations, which will include:

    —  the purpose the building(s) serves and what it contributes to the social, economic and environmental well being of the area;

    —  the existing local infrastructure (or what will need to be built) to support it; and

    —  design quality and aesthetic considerations, ie, its appropriateness to the existing physical environment and impact on easements.

  It is suggested that tall buildings are better suited to areas that already have tall buildings, but it may be of some strategic use, ie, to meet housing or office shortage, that tall buildings are constructed where the opportunity arises. This may occur where major improvements are in place or are planned for the transport infrastructure.

  When considering proposals for tall buildings, some form of option appraisal / cost benefit analysis should be undertaken to assess what can be achieved by using the land differently. Many high-rise developments are characterised by very poorly managed (and consequently) poorly used open space that is considered neither public nor private.

  Whether in the present movement to erect new tall buildings we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960s.

  Tall buildings do offer the opportunity to develop accommodation that is spacious, safe, and cost effective for addressing the needs of one and two person households, who wish to live centrally and do not want to incur the increased rent/mortgage costs and management costs associated with a larger property.

  There are plenty of examples of poorly designed, unpopular high-rise social housing that has come to typify inner city deprivation. Equally, there are some examples that have come to be recognised as very exclusive, sought after locations, but more recent private sector high-rise developments have tended to be in prime locations, often by waterways.

  An important element of successful high-rise housing management has been the advent in the last decade of concierge schemes. A report commissioned by the DETR High Hopes: concierge, controlled entry and similar schemes for high rise blocks (1997) highlighted that intensive concierge schemes can provide the circumstances for more effective management of high rise blocks, but that they were not a solution on their own. The researchers found that the most successful concierge schemes were contingent on changes to allocations policies, and also where non-residents perpetrate anti-social behaviour. However, the cost of concierges can be prohibitive and can contribute significantly to the "poverty trap".

  The Federation considers it essential that development of high-rise buildings proposals for residential purposes, whether for private, public or a mix of tenures, there must be:

    —  an appropriate dwelling mix, that has a preference for one and two bedroom accommodation;

    —  a sensitive allocations policy, with perhaps a mix of tenures also;

    —  onsite communal facilities required by residents; and

    —  sufficient resources are earmarked for housing management purposes, which ideally should include a concierge service that can be afforded by low-income residents.

  Whether those making decisions are sufficiently accountable to the public.

  The Federation does not have a particular view on how development and planning decisions are made with respect to proposed tall buildings. We do expect the Planning Green Paper to comment substantially on the planning process and would hope that future decisions on tall buildings are properly scrutinised by the local planning authority, with local people and stakeholders having access to all relevant matters pertaining to the application.

  Whether the Government should have a more explicit policy on the subject.

  Consideration should be given to more research and literature on the issue of high rise housing and what the salient issues are for strategic and development control planners, housing developers and housing managers. In the medium and longer term, pressure to increase housing density on new developments, particularly in areas of high housing demand will lead to more high-rise buildings being proposed. It is doubtful whether an explicit policy is required from the Government, but it may be that a related organisation, such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), can play a crucial role in ensuring that decisions made are with the best information and expertise available. It is worth noting that the DTLR published Tapping the potential—Assessing urban housing capacity: towards better practice (Dec 2000) which offered much interesting information on how land use could be made more efficient, made little reference to the pros and cons of tall residential buildings.

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