Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by London Borough of Tower Hamlets (TAB 44)

  The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is currently reviewing its Unitary Development Plan. As part of this review the issue of high buildings is being reconsidered. The Borough's planners are therefore following the London-wide debate about high buildings with considerable interest.

  The Planning Policy Team are also concurrently preparing a Supplementary Planning Guidance Note (SPG) on High Buildings to articulate the Council's position on high buildings. This SPG has yet to be adopted, but the following comments indicate the likely position of the Council on a number of matters relating to high buildings.

  The Mayor of London's Spatial Development Strategy proposes much of the future growth of London toward the east. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets finds itself very much at the heart of this potential growth, being located at the hub of both the Thames Gateway and Lea Valley growth corridors. In response to this, we are currently considering how this proposed growth could be accommodated, and whether tall buildings have a role to play.

  We anticipate being faced with increasing demand for non-residential uses as well as for residential development. We have, in recent years, considered many proposals for residential use that fit our definition of "high" buildings, and in principle are not opposed to their development in the future.

  We consider that tall buildings play a role where land is at a premium. They can achieve high density and deliver vitality on small sites, both for residential and commercial uses. However, for tall buildings to be successful we believe that they have to be appropriately located and contribute to the public environment.

  One of the main issues relating to tall buildings we currently face in Tower Hamlets is that any significant development, tall or not, places additional demand on infrastructure resources. Transport links in particular are currently stretched to capacity, and without additional investment the network will be unable to adequately service new large-scale developments. We feel that the developers of high-density projects should not rely on the unlimited supply of infrastructure as a right. Projects should either be accommodated within the carrying capacity of an area or provision should be made as part of development to improve networks before placing additional pressure on them.

  Tall buildings can contribute significantly to sustainability objectives. New designs should always take into account environmental efficiency in design, layout, construction techniques materials, and to ensure future adaptability of buildings. The contribution to reducing vehicle movements, increasing use of public transport and facilitating other pollution-reducing forms of transport should also be considered.

  Many global companies desire an "address"—a prestigious and recognisable location, and tall or architecturally distinctive buildings can provide this identity locally, and more often globally. There are certainly economic advantages for a company to have all its employees on one site. However, in the majority of cases, companies seeking premises take into account other functional requirements such as location, access, servicing, infrastructure and floorplate size as priorities. We understand that the desire to occupy a landmark building exists for many companies, but do not believe that this factor alone should be used as justification for allowing more new high buildings.

  High buildings can also contribute to the beautification of the city, particularly if they are strikingly designed and replace something of lesser architectural merit. The critical factor in the design success of tall buildings is the manner in which they "hit the ground" and contribute to the public realm. Many examples of poorly executed developments have given us sterile plazas and ground-floor uses which lack of interaction with the public realm just outside the front door. As for any new development, the potential of a building to enhance and enliven street life should be of paramount importance.

  The top of a building should also be given special attention. Many cities, London included, are known for their distinctive skylines, but we do not believe that a skyline has to remain static or feature only historic buildings for it to contribute positively to a city's image. Indeed, when considering various distinctive buildings that global cities are known for, many of the buildings and structures featured have been built in "recent" times—some even since the 1970's. However, emphasis should still always be focused on the contribution of the building to street life and its ability to support economic activity.


  The Tower Hamlets Unitary Development Plan currently defines a "high building" as one that "exceeds 20 metres in height". The UDP review will look at the wider policy issues of tall buildings, including the current definition of height.

  Obviously the current debate is centred on buildings that far exceed this limit, and we have many buildings in the Borough that are much taller than 20 metres. As part of the development of the upcoming SPG, we have considered where buildings which are significantly taller than 20 metres could potentially be located. A number of criteria were used to determine locations that might be suitable for very tall buildings, based on their likely impact on local and regional infrastructure, and environmental conditions. Proposals would also have to satisfy the requirements of the planning process. This sort of analysis proved very useful in determining areas where high buildings could potentially be located.

  We do not think that the Government should prescribe locations for tall buildings, but a direction that local planning authorities carry out a similar study (particularly Inner London Boroughs and those in proposed Spatial Development Strategy development corridors) would be welcomed and supported.


  The argument for protecting specific views of buildings is difficult to make due to the subjective nature of views themselves. At what point is a view most "valuable", and when is it "lost" or "unimportant"?

  Tower Hamlets is affected by three strategic views as outlined in RPG3 Annex A: Supplementary Planning Guidance for London on the Protection of Strategic Views. Within these areas, inappropriately high development is resisted. In addition to the Strategic Views, there are other views within the Borough which are considered worthy of protection, as they provide vistas which are unique to Tower Hamlets and serve to strengthen the identity of these places. There are nine such local views that the Council strives to protect, and four views from within the Borough to landmarks in other boroughs. We therefore consider that protection of views is important, as they strengthen the identity of the Borough and of London as a whole.

  In a predominantly flat city such as London, views provide interest and strengthen a sense of identity. However, we feel that the current strategic views are limited in that significant changes in the skyline have occurred since they were proposed. A graphic example of this is the views from Greenwich Observatory towards St Paul's Cathedral. The viewshaft was outlined before development at Canary Wharf took place, and it is these large new buildings which now dominate the views from Greenwich. We would like the Government to re-examine this aspect of the tall buildings debate, and update strategic guidance on viewshafts.


  It is possible to argue that if buildings are clustered the identity of individual buildings is lost, which defeats the purpose of such a striking form of architecture.

  However, the impact of a group of buildings can also be significant. Consider Canary Wharf—on its own, One Canada Square was a landmark building. However, now with its two companions of similar height and bulk, they form a group that more fully identifies the place as "Canary Wharf".

  There are arguments both ways, and proposals for high buildings should always be assessed on their merits. What we would caution against is architectural "trophy-ism" whereby a building is intended to glorify an architect or company simply by its design. There is a place for spectacular architecture in London. However, it must not be at the expense of the amenities of occupiers or those in the area, nor be at odds with the surroundings.


  The poor reputation of high buildings in this Borough is predominantly associated with residential blocks. Many of these admittedly are of poor design and quality. While the current debate about "tall" buildings predominantly centres on a small number of landmark buildings, we are also faced with considering the possibility of high residential buildings, and must be aware of the "mistakes" of the past. Faced with a proposed expansion of the City eastwards, an increase in the population and a change in household composition over the next 15 years, we cannot ignore the potential of high buildings as a solution for residences.

  Similarly, many tall office buildings have shown architects how not to design plazas.

  Much has been learned from the developments of the 1960s. Architects and developers are now much more aware of the undesirable effects of high buildings, and there are many design solutions and new technologies that should be able to reduce the adverse effects of tall buildings.

We consider that in order to achieve a quality result, it is crucial for developers to engage an architect who has experience of making tall buildings work. We will press for the highest standards of urban design in order to make high buildings, whatever their proposed use, pleasant to occupy and be near.

  In addition, it is crucial that high buildings do not contribute to social exclusion. Every effort should be made to ensure that developments contain a mix of uses.


  London is a place of diverse environments, and Boroughs have different skills and capacity to assess proposals for tall buildings. On the matter of tall buildings in general, we feel that some sort of strategic guidance would be helpful. In areas such as the inner Boroughs and East of London, the pressure for tall buildings is likely to remain or intensify.

  We do not propose that the Government direct local authorities in the matter of location of tall buildings, as every site and every building proposal presents different opportunities and constraints. Consistent and refined design assessment skills in local planning authorities are therefore critical, but for those Boroughs which lack resources, Government guidance would at least ensure that all local authorities are assessing the same types of things at the same level of detail when considering proposals for tall buildings.

  As already mentioned, we feel that the current guidance on Strategic Views needs reviewing.

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Prepared 22 January 2002