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A policy on tall buildings is just that

editorial

Argument over the location of millions of extra homes has coincided with a debate over the future of high-rise buildings in the capital, not least because of the conversion of offices into apartments which is now taking place in many areas. If we want intensification and density changes in our cities to accommodate more people, should we not be building higher? This thorny problem has been exercising the London Planning Advisory Committee (which makes recommendations to government on strategic policy), and the Royal Fine Art Commission, whose pamphlet is a model of concise thinking on the issue. There is a cautious acceptance from both groups that there may be an argument for high-rise, but no one wants to identify where the blocks might go.

That, of course, will not do as a policy. Developer Wates City Properties' experience in trying to achieve a Calatrava tower rebuild in the City has been depressingly predictable ('we don't mind in principle but we know how to design it better than the architect'). Even more depressing was the fact that the company was prepared to demolish an existing building and start completely fresh - but could obtain no certainty from any planning group as to what height would be allowed. A new building was abandoned.

Areas of uncertainty are what make development unnecessarily risky, and result in developers constantly pushing their luck in the absence of proper strategic policies. London and other cities need to establish an attitude to high building, and should then identify where it will be allowed (if at all). Then leave it to developers to take the financial risk and architects the design risk - there is scant evidence that interference results in improvement, as the skylines of many of our towns and cities show. What we are entitled to expect, however, is evidence of intelligent (urban) design thought and environmental analysis on the part of proposers of tall buildings - much more important than whether a building is this or that height, and the only requirement likely to improve quality in the long term.

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