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Tall stories: talking towers, but learning very little

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Almost a year after the most catastrophic event involving tall buildings ever, the UK skyscraper debate has resurfaced with the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee presenting its - at times odd - findings.

The committee talked to anti-tower folk such as Simon Jenkins as well as advocates including Ken Livingstone. It heard evidence from English Heritage, which it chastised for wanting to list tall buildings at the same time as it fought against them. But this was unfair. EH does list some, particular, tall buildings for historical or architectural reasons, just as it actually supports some towers - such as Swiss Re, arguably more significant than the Heron Tower it fought at inquiry. And the committee heard from CABE, which it attacked as a 'Modernist fan club', in danger of losing its credibility, riddled with conflicts of interest on its design review committee and in a 'cosy'relationship with the mayor, Corporation of London, big business and architects.CABE's response: it too has criticised 'Modernist'schemes, has 'traditionalists' on its panel and, anyway, the commissioners are appointed by government in the first place.

The report is also peppered with simplistic notions: do we need to be told that if tall buildings are allowed, 'it is important that they are well-designed'? Perhaps we do.

We hear that Bath has been 'disfigured by a 1960s block', but then so have many suburban areas by poor housing - it does not follow that we should abandon the house as a result. Neither is it helpful that 'tall buildings are not necessary to provide high-density accommodation'or that 'tall buildings have not always been sustainable'.

Perhaps the findings should have been less 'pepperpotted'and more 'clustered'.

One thought, though, does jump out.Nowhere does the report define what a tall building is. Is it five,10 or 30 storeys? Buildings are surely 'tall'depending on their context, making an exact, overarching policy difficult indeed.And that is government's biggest quandary here.Many want the EH/CABE joint guidance on tall buildings added to PPG1. But that would hardly be 'simplifying'or easing the planning process.

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