Tall buildings have become an increasingly common and sometimes contentious feature of the planning system. They can successfully fulfil a number of roles such as contributing to housing provision, improving townscape and acting as landmarks. Their contentiousness can arise from their effect on heritage assets and this is a common consideration in planning applications. Since Historic England’s advice on tall buildings was last updated more than four years ago in 2015, it is not surprising that the opportunity is being taken to review this as there have been changes to policy and the nature, location and number of applications for tall buildings.
As noted in the draft advice, tall buildings are not a new feature and the definition of tall is relative; St Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building in London for hundreds of years and the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building were both at one time the tallest buildings in the world. St Paul’s Cathedral is now a key consideration of views management guidance and protection in London and so tall buildings, old and new, form part of our historic and built environment legacy. This is reflected in the statutory protection of key tall buildings through listing; examples include the Grade II* listed Trellick Tower and Grade II listed BT Tower in London and Grade II listed Rotunda in Birmingham.
Historic England’s website states the updated advice will be issued in the summer and so it will shortly become a material consideration in many applications for tall buildings and Historic England (HE) officers will inevitably use it as a guide when giving pre-application advice or responding to planning applications and local plan submissions as part of HE’s role. The consultation therefore gives an insight to HE’s approach in assessing tall building proposals and policies, subject to finalisation, and the advice will guide heritage professionals and decision makers throughout England.
The following are some key points to be aware of in the draft updated advice and our commentary on where it could go further.
1. Case studies of historic cities
Probably one of the most noticeable developments in tall building proposals in recent years is that they are no longer the preserve of London.
Rightly so, the draft advice recognises this and makes reference to examples outside of the capital. However, the key case studies in addition to London are Oxford, Cambridge and York. Although these are key historic cities, they are not representative of the variety of historic areas and buildings across the country. Practical case studies of successful examples of tall buildings would have been helpful.
2. Expansion of the scope of what constitutes a tall building?
The reinforced assertion in the draft advice that whether or not a building is considered tall and the threshold for this depends on the local context, is welcome and allows for clarification and definition in local plans and policies.
However, the same section of the consultation refers to “a building in a hill-top location, or on the crest of a ridge of higher ground, may gain prominence and an appearance of height.” This suggests the advice relates not only to tall buildings but those in high or prominent locations. This particular advice note does not seem the appropriate place for such buildings; Historic England already has guidance on the effects of development on the setting of heritage assets and such buildings would be appropriately considered through the methodology this promotes. There are unique considerations and effects that tall buildings bring, that those in prominent or high locations do not; the two should be distinguished.
3. Increased emphasis on the importance of design, context and of a plan-led approach
This reflects the increased focus on these areas in national guidance. A plan-led approach and definition of tall building zones, which consider the effects on heritage assets, provide greater clarity to decision-makers, developers and residents and can help ensure sensitive development in the historic environment. However, as these issues, such as the components of good design, are dealt with at length in other guidance, they could be cross-referred in the advice rather than considered in detail.
HE’s recommendation that there should be criteria to assess speculative proposals in places where tall building development is likely, but there is a lack of allocations or areas identified for tall buildings, seems pragmatic.
4. The role of technology
The draft advice refers to the increasing range of technical tools that can assist all stakeholders in assessing tall building proposals, such as 3D models. Until fairly recently this type of analysis was mainly requested by councils in central London but now is an increasingly common request elsewhere.
Advice on when such tools are likely to be required would be helpful, to be proportionate to the scheme and potential effects. The draft currently makes a blanket suggestion for the use of 3D models, virtual reality headsets and Accurate Visual Representations, but these will not be necessary in all tall building cases; a ‘tall’ building in some contexts will be relatively low and can be understood from application drawings, photographs and technical analysis. This could be better framed in the guidance as ‘where available/ appropriate’.
Which leads on to…
5. A missed opportunity to emphasise proportionality in assessment and approach
The consultation makes reference to proportionality but this could be emphasised further. HE’s advice on assessing effects on the setting of heritage assets has a helpful reference to the importance of scoping to minimise the need to assess very large numbers of heritage assets, including for tall building proposals; reinforcement of this approach would be particularly helpful in this advice note.
Tall building assessments clearly have the potential to cover a wide area and repetitive and unnecessary assessment is not in anyone’s interest. A well-considered scoping exercise with the local authority can ensure that assessments are targeted and focused on where the important effects are likely to take place, aiding informed decision-making. This also relates to the level and amount of supporting information which is required to accompany applications, particularly when the number of technical tools is increasing.
Overall, the draft advice should be seen as an evolution of Historic England’s position. There are still opportunities for the advice note to provide more specific and practical advice, particularly in the section on assessing proposals, to ensure the sector has a proportionate and comparable approach. The space dedicated to checklists for applications and design considerations, which are covered in numerous other places such as policy and validation requirements, would be better spent on targeted historic environment advice that can be used as a practical guide by all those involved in the design and assessment of tall buildings.
The increased focus on the role of development plans in relation to tall buildings – notably with regard to a strong evidence base - indicates that Historic England recognises that tall buildings are here to stay, and that the response needs to be led at a local level to ensure tall buildings can make a positive contribution to the built and historic environment. The combination of a plan-led approach, focus on design and proportionate and informed assessment supported by the most recent technology where necessary, should result in just this.