Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Birmingham City Council (TAB 54)


  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 prepared.

  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 living—a 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 under consideration.

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 contexts.

  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 buildings.

  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 apart.

  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 be sustainable.

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 overall designs.

    —  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 defects.

  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.

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Prepared 22 January 2002