How high? A discussion forum about tall buildings  

City College, 19 October 2016
The panel of five speakers brought together for the Society’s forum provided an informed and stimulating variety of views and opinions about tall buildings and their place in the city’s development. As is becoming the norm for such forums, the level of interest in this topic resulted in a large audience, whose contributions to the debate were perhaps more varied but thoughtful and well argued.
David Robson arranged and chaired the event. He began by outlining the problems facing the city: its position constrained between the Downs and the sea, its shortage of affordable housing and the lack of usable land on which to build  more than 13,000 new homes of the 30,000 needed by 2030. In the 19th century Brighton built some of the tallest, most densely developed housing in terraces with 100 dwellings per hectare. Higher density is again essential. A city that cannot grow is dying.
Tom Shaw, Development Director of Hyde Housing Group, opened the discussion by saying that any development must not be at the expense of Brighton’s uniqueness. He noted that the city council’s guidance note on the subject of tall buildings (defined as any building of more than six storeys) is 10 years old and in need of revision. Policy about conservation areas also needs modernising. It is significant that many residential schemes have been kept small to avoid triggering the city’s requirement for affordable housing, resulting in piecemeal development. Taller commercial buildings may be more attractive to companies wishing the move to the city.
Jeremy Mustoe, chair of the Brighton Society, argued that allowing one tall building can create a precedent and a trend that can be hard to stop. Better not to start in the first place. High density low-rise development, he argued, is a better solution to housing needs than high-rise. The tower blocks of the post-war era are now being demolished. He compared statistics for housing density in various parts of the city to demonstrate that low-rise terraced housing achieved at least comparable, if not higher, density of homes than tall buildings.
Phélim Mac Cafferty, convener of the Green Group on the city council and a member of the planning committee, pointed out that the city’s Regency squares and terraces are tall buildings, as are other buildings intended to impress. His own Brunswick ward is one the densest in Europe. Tall buildings should set exemplary standards for environmental sustainability and social inclusion. He agreed that the Supplementary Planning Guidance needs updating. What is needed is a long-term vision in place-making, for which 3D modeling of city development would be beneficial. The council has identified nine zones where tall buildings might be appropriate.
Nick Lomax of LCE Architects wanted the city to have ambitions that reflect its status. There is a desperate shortage of developable land, so each application for a tall building should be assessed on its merits; the ‘tall-building’ zones approach is nonsensical. Setting the point at which buildings become ‘tall’ at six storeys or 18 metres and ‘very tall’ at 45 metres is well below the definition of 200 metres established by the Council of Tall Buildings. We should look to compact, sustainable Transit Oriented Development (TOD) as a strategy for high-density, mixed-use projects to encourage use of public transport. Taller housing (up to four storeys) in urban fringes would be a better way forward than sprawling estates of bungalows.
Nick Hibberd, Executive Director Economy, Environment & Culture, Brighton & Hove City Council, said the council has the difficult problem of being able to find land for only 44 per cent of housing need: 13,000 of the 30,000 homes needed. Globally, one million people a week are moving into cities. Tall buildings have to be considered as part of the mix and can be iconic—enhancing the city’s image and status—but must be built to the highest possible standard. Ways in which tall buildings can give something back to the public realm should be discussed. Historically tower blocks have made a poor contribution to place-making.
The ensuing discussion engaged with several themes that had emerged.
• Too often the community’s instinctive reaction to proposals for taller buildings is that they must be cut down in size, rather than reflecting on the merits of the scheme and assessing them in context.
• Tall buildings are always visible. In Brighton and Hove this means they can be seen from all over the city. That should not in itself be a reason for rejecting them. Nick Lomax said we should think of iconic sites rather than iconic buildings, as it is usually possible to define a building as iconic only after it is built.
• New and more up-to-date Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) documents are needed.
• Planning policy is not as ‘nimble’ as it should be. We should use the opportunity of the second phase of the City Plan (CP2) to examine practices and strip away unnecessary obstacles to development. Policy should facilitate, not hinder. (This from Nick Hibberd.)
• The council will consider re-development of urban fringe housing estates when the housing stock is towards the end of its useful life and the resettlement of residents can be handled sensitively. This process has already begun.
• The University of Brighton has a pilot project to create 3D virtual visual visualisations of townscapes. The use of virtual reality (VR) in assessing the impact of new development in a wider context could be invaluable. Gaming software such as Minecraft is employed and school students are involved. It is also possible to use the virtual model to generate 3D-printed physical copies. Nick Lomax said his architectural practice is beginning to use 3D VR modeling.
Questions were also raised for future debate:
• Why did tall buildings (and low-rise) from the 1960s fail? Was it because of design, materials or (as Phélim Mac Cafferty said) poor management and inadequate maintence?
• Do we give enough consideration to designing the interiors and accommodation in tall buildings? The Parker Morris standards for living space requirements defined in the 1960s as the minimum had become the norm.

Illustrations show recent controversial tall buildings in Brighton and Hove submitted for approval or under construction: 

Proposal for Texaco Garage site, Kings Road, Hove
The 40 storey tower at Brighton Marina (approved and under construction)
Original proposal for Sackville Hotel site, King's Road, Hove (application withdrawn) 
Proposal for replacement of Anston House, Preston Road, Brighton

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