Memorandum by Birmingham City Council
The Birmingham Urban Design Study City Centre
Strategy (BUDS) published in 1991 contains Birmingham's existing
policy for the design and location of new tall buildings. Generally
it says that tall buildings, and that is buildings over 15 storeys
high, are only appropriate in a defined area of the city centre,
along the ridge that runs from Five Ways to Lancaster Circus,
on the principle that tall buildings should reinforce the natural
topography. It also identifies some specific sites at major junctions
and arrival points around the city core where tall buildings are
appropriate as landmarks and gateway markers. Buildings are required
to be of the highest quality, sited sensitively and designed to
minimise environmental impact.
These simple but sound design principles have
served the city well during a period when few proposals for new
tall buildings have been made. However renewed pressure to develop
tall buildings means that they need revisiting and possibly refining.
A new policy that reaffirms and develops these principles is being
One of the strategic themes in Birmingham's
Cabinet Statement is "A Modern and Successful City"
in which two of the main priorities are "to sustain and enhance
the renaissance of Birmingham and consolidate the city's regional,
national and international profile . . ." and . . . "to
continue the programme of major developments in the city centre
so the city centre is further developed as an exciting place for
work and relaxation, and livinga city where jobs are created
for people from all communities and backgrounds."
We suggest that tall buildings will have a significant
role to play in realising these priorities, and that there is
scope in the city centre for a number of well-placed, high quality,
tall buildings that would enhance the image of the city's core
and meet the demand for new, primarily office, accommodation.
The Unitary Development Plan and the recently altered Deposit
Draft acknowledge this through BUDS, and in time the imminent
new policy will provide appropriate guidance for the determination
of planning applications.
Although supportive of tall buildings in principle,
we are convinced that their number should be limited in order
to maximise their impact. Based on current and projected take
up rates for commercial floorspace, there is a finite quantity
of activity that our future tall buildings can accommodate. We
consider that to create an overly large number of tall buildings
would not only be damaging to the physical environment, it would
also be counter to our urban regeneration agenda. The amount of
new office floor space, hotel bed spaces and residential apartments
that our city centre can accommodate is limited and we wish to
use that activity in the most effective way to help regenerate
the city centre as a whole, not merely where a tall building happens
to be located. To concentrate that activity into numerous tall
buildings would be counter productive when we wish to spread the
activity over a broad "canvas" and to use that activity
to stimulate future development. This approach has worked successfully
to date, for example in the City's award winning Brindleyplace.
In response to the issues the Sub-committee
wish to examine our views are:
The role of tall buildings in achieving high densities
in residential areas
Birmingham has many tall housing blocks most
of which were put up during the wholesale redevelopment of the
inner city slums during the 1950s and 60s. They are scattered
throughout the redevelopment areas and also in some of the edge
of city developments where they were constructed to accommodate
surplus population displaced from the redevelopment areas.
At that time it was widely believed that tall
buildings provided the answer to the need for speedily constructed,
high-density accommodation in spacious surroundings. However by
the late 1960s a policy shift in favour of suburban densities,
generally achieved by providing two storey houses with their own
gardens, meant that tall buildings fell from favour.
Very few new tall housing blocks have been built
during the intervening years. However a significant increase in
investment over the last ten years is transforming the city centre.
Now that this is coupled with Government guidance stipulating
higher densities, interest in the development of tall buildings
for housing has revived.
Although Birmingham has had its share of tall
building failures in terms of standards of construction and unpopularity
with residents, many of its tall buildings have stood the test
of time. Physical refurbishment, better entry control arrangements
and re-planning of the space around and between tower blocks has
meant that many of the blocks have and will continue to provide
acceptable housing for many people in the city. The success of
the renovation work to the existing tall building stock shows
that it is not height alone that gives rise to problems. Well-designed
and constructed tall buildings offer suitable housing for many
people. Two of the many successful examples in Birmingham are
"The Sentinels", still the tallest housing blocks north
of London, and "Millennium Apartments" a residential
conversion of BT's old offices on Newhall Street.
However tall buildings are not the only solutions
to the need for high-density housing, and developments that meet
the aspirations for higher urban densities are easily achievable
in low and mid-rise building forms. In addition aspirations for
better urban design means that more traditional housing forms
are most likely to provide the quality of place and space required.
Nevertheless there will still be a place for
tall housing blocks in special locations where landmark buildings
can contribute positively to the urban form. In Birmingham these
locations are currently restricted to the city centre ridge and
a few other defined locations.
Recently approval was given, following a public
inquiry, for a 55 storey mixed-use tower that includes housing
within the city centre ridge zone in the Arena Central development.
A further application for a 38 storey housing tower on a gateway
location at Holloway Circus in the City Centre is also currently
Where tall buildings should be located; what restrictions,
if any, should be placed on the location of tall buildings
There is a general acceptance that tall buildings
signal the economic success of modern cities. The central business
district where land values are highest is their usual location
but other inner city locations are common.
Birmingham subscribes to the principle that
tall buildings are appropriate in its city centre. Fortunately
its centre lies on a ridge where tall buildings can accentuate
the topography and create a landmark impact from a distance. Therefore
it has been relatively simple to define a zone within which tall
buildings are acceptable. Other cities that lie on level ground
or in valleys will need to define constraints on the siting of
tall buildings in different ways in order to make best use of
their landmark qualities. At best a group of tall buildings can
endow a city with a unique skyline that responds to strategic
views, and is easily recognisable in both national and international
Tall buildings can also serve as beacons or
gateway markers that help to make the city form legible. The siting
and scale of isolated tall buildings needs to be very carefully
considered so that their impact is effective. Buildings that are
scattered, seemingly at random, do not reinforce the structure
of the city and can confound an instinctive understanding of it.
Tall buildings or features such as spires and
towers can also mark important public and historic institutions
such as churches, civic buildings and universities. The unique
impact of good examples of these sorts of buildings must be protected.
So the development of any new tall buildings in their vicinity
needs to be very carefully controlled and important views and
vistas should be defined and guarded.
Proposals for tall buildings will have to show
that their location is acceptable. Tall buildings should not be
located in areas where they destroy an existing coherent townscape
of merit, for example in a conservation area or adjacent to listed
In Birmingham air safety is a consideration.
In relation to the licensing of the West Midlands Airport the
Civil Aviation Authority sets an Obstacle Limitation Surface that
restricts the maximum height of any tall building in the city
to 242 metres above the Ordnance Survey datum. In the city centre
this represents a maximum height at the edge of the ridge zone
of about 120 metres or 30-40 storeys depending on individual storey
heights. Different controls could vary this limit although, clearly,
safety must dictate that aircraft and tall buildings are kept
Tall buildings in appropriate locations will
have considerable impact. Where they are considered appropriate
they should be integrated into a masterplan that fully addresses
the local context and it is essential that a written statement
setting out the design principles adopted and an environmental
impact assessment accompanies all proposals.
The design of tall buildings must be of the
highest quality in architectural form, detail and materials. The
design of the top will be particularly important because of its
potential impact on the skyline and at low level the building
should be integrated into the local townscape, and provide life
and activity at street level.
Tall building developments should contribute
to people's ability to move easily and safely through the city
and their impact on the local transport infrastructure and particularly
public transport needs to be carefully evaluated. Proposals should
Whether in the present movement to erect new tall
buildings we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960s.
The mistakes of the 1960s mostly stem from:
A lack of understanding about effective
ways of dealing with communal areas, the security, the servicing
and the management of tall buildings.
Poor technical solutions for structures,
sound and thermal insulation and durable external coverings.
Poor integration of tall buildings
at ground level.
An over-reliance on single use developments
Inappropriate siting of tall buildings,
particularly housing blocks, where they do not contribute to the
overall form of a city's topography or act as effective landmarks.
Most of these factors are now well understood
and new buildings should not suffer from similar physical design
Acceptable siting of tall buildings depends
on the existence of a robust local policy, based on a rigorous
analysis of the situation, to ensure that tall buildings are only
allowed where they can make a positive contribution to the urban
form. A requirement for design statements and environmental impact
assessments will reinforce the need to consider every aspect of
tall building design.
Whether those making decisions are sufficiently
accountable to the public
If a well-constructed policy has been prepared
with full public consultation, there should be no reason for decision
makers to make decisions that are unaccountable. A robust policy
that has clear aims for the siting and form of tall buildings,
should they be proposed, will ensure that the decision making
process is as open as possible to public scrutiny and should produce
a successful result.
In addition the involvement in the planning
process of Statutory Consultees such as CABE and English Heritage
and also Community Liaison Groups should provide independent scrutiny.
Whether the Government should have more explicit
policy on the subject
Recent media and public interest in tall buildings
following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New
York has caused some people to doubt the wisdom of building them.
Clearly lessons need to be learnt about the structural design,
fire protection measures and escape arrangements of tall buildings
to protect the people who use them and their surroundings from
potential harm; nevertheless tall buildings are a legitimate building
form and it would seem inappropriate to react to such unprecedented
events by outlawing them. They are widely accepted as symbols
of the commercial success of modern cities and can be a benefit
both economically and architecturally.
Thus it would be prudent to re-evaluate regulatory
standards to ensure that reasonable measures are in place to provide
robust guidance for designers and reassurance to the public that
tall buildings are safe and that all reasonably foreseeable contingencies
have been considered. Expert committees in America and elsewhere
are considering such issues and co-operation between all agencies
involved would clearly be beneficial. We have established links
with Chicago, Birmingham's twin city in America, and have an ongoing
process of consultation about design standards and codes prompted
by the Hampton Trust's proposals for the Arena Central tower.
The economics of tall building design are a
different question and issues such as rental levels, construction
costs, insurance premiums and perceptions of personal safety are
less easy to quantify and control. Market forces will tend to
prevail and it is too early to say whether the recent optimism
surrounding new tall building proposals will be sustained in the
face of concern about the safety and suitability of tall buildings.
However a measured and responsible approach to design and safety
standards should do much to reassure fears.
Government should certainly ensure that national
regulatory standards are robust and appropriate, and perhaps oblige
local authorities to have clear tall building policies. However
we think it would be inappropriate for Government to have an explicit
policy that extends beyond these requirements.