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Bee: 'Don't expect latest tall buildings guidance to have much impact'

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Former English Heritage director, Steven Bee, fears Historic England’s new tall buildings guidance will have little influence on the nation’s skyline

The previous tall buildings guidance published jointly by English Heritage and CABE was observed more in the breach than in compliance. The two bodies regularly used it to come to different conclusions – 20 Fenchurch Street being a classic example – so an update might be due.

Replacing a four-page document with one of 16 doesn’t augur well, and the extra space is not well used. Virtually all of the text relates to good practice in preparing planning policy and handling planning applications, which is available from many sources already, including Historic England.

Historic England is struggling to offer helpful advice with one hand tied behind its back

How does it help developers and local planning authorities evaluate the impact of tall buildings on heritage assets? Well it says that you can use characterisation and building height studies, but it doesn’t say how. It also recommends the use of models (actually it recommends modelling, but we know what it means).

In the past, English Heritage provided advice and guidance on understanding the nature of historic setting and introducing new buildings in historic views. This was helpful up to a point, but demonstrated the difficulty of setting general rules and methods for interfering with the historic environment.

By far the most useful contributions made by English Heritage – and CABE – were examples of good practice that demonstrated how intelligent designers had risen to the challenge of developing in a historic context. The government no longer allows this kind of interference from public bodies, which is why design review has become the most popular means of securing expert advice on the appropriateness of new buildings.

So we have to sympathise with Historic England, struggling to offer helpful advice with one hand tied behind its back. It would have been more helpful, however, if it had left out the bleeding obvious (it lists 12 elements of good local plans, only one of which relates to the historic environment) and focused on examples of applying townscape analysis to the specifics of historic settings. There are loads of tall buildings in historic settings – good and bad.

Tall buildings guidance has had very little influence on these, and I don’t see that changing now.

Steven Bee chairman, The Academy of Urbanism

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