Michael Gove says he wants to relieve the pressure on housebuilding in the shires, protect the Green Belt and concentrate development on brownfield land in cities. A cynic might see a correlation with voter patterns, though Gove’s priorities closely mirror established “best practice” in the planning profession and development industry.
Successive London Plans have emphasised the sustainable benefits of dense urban development on existing centres, especially on “transport nodes” as these means fewer car journeys and more people supporting existing local services and stimulating new ones. The most visible expression of this is the clustering of tall residential towers along the south bank of the Thames and, increasingly, in outer London, from Southall to Ilford via North Acton and Tottenham Hale.
This process was encouraged by Mayors Livingstone and Johnson alike. Both seem to have regarded towers as desirable virility symbols for a thriving global city. On a practical level, strong demand for more homes against a background of highly-restricted land supply, has led to widespread acceptance that “the only way is up”.
The visual impact of towers on London’s skyline and streetscape continues to be highly controversial, with residents of low-rise suburbs objecting to the transformation of their neighbourhoods by very tall developments.
The Skyline Campaign has long argued for restraint based on respect for London’s unique urban character, and Gove’s colleagues at Create Streets and the Office for Place argue for “gentle density”, pointing out that redeveloping London at the mid-rise scale of Kensington or Haussman’s Paris would easily meet our housing needs for years to come.
What is the future for high-rise housing?
A new book of essays called What is the Future for High-Rise Housing? avoids matters of townscape, urban culture and architectural appearance and instead concentrates on more objective and measurable aspects of residential towers. On London readers can download it for free.
I am one of the principal authors, alongside June Barnes, former chief executive of the East Thames Housing Association, former Peabody development director Dickon Robinson, and London School of Economics distinguished policy fellow, Kath Scanlon. There are also contributions from architects Allies and Morrison, Levitt Bernstein and Pollard Thomas Edwards, and from lawyer Douglas Rhodes and property agent David Salvi.
We are united by a desire, not to banish towers, but to see superdense development done better – and for better practice to be based on better information.
London’s growing up
The book starts with observations about the speed at which London has grown up. It explains competing definitions of “tall building” and defines high-rise as 10 storeys or more. The postwar burst of municipal housebuilding, including towers typically of around 20 storeys – the Grenfell tower, for example, stood at 24 – petered out in the late 1970s.
The stigma they attracted suppressed further such developments until around 2010, when towers for the private market really took off. The latest London Tall Buildings Survey produced annually by New London Architecture (NLA) provides ten years of data for the period 2012-2022 and identifies 583 tall towers (20 storeys or more) in London’s recent pipeline.
These have had a dramatic impact on London’s skyline. But our analysis shows that completed tall towers have so far contributed less than five per cent towards meeting London’s current target of 52,000 new homes a year – and that does not take account of flats bought by investors and not offered back into the rental market. Blocks between 10 and 20 storeys are likely to have made a much bigger contribution, but there is a frustrating lack of data on these.
High-rise aspirations face service charge reality check
Dickon Robinson’s chapter High-Rise Aspirations Face Service Charge Reality Check and the accompanying Legal Briefing chapter by Douglas Rhodes explain the onerous liabilities for long-term maintenance taken on by those buying long leasehold flats. The authors call for much stronger obligations on developers, legal and mortgage advisors to clarify these liabilities and for the mandatory provision of a lifetime expenditure model.
Leases of 250-years are now common, yet the component parts of an apartment block will require replacement several times, starting after only around 25 years. There is concern that leaseholders on modest incomes (including the many who benefited from Help to Buy) will be unable or unwilling to meet these costs and that major government intervention will be required – a situation foreshadowed by the post-Grenfell cladding replacement crisis.
As for 999-year leases, what will happen when a building in multiple ownership requires complete replacement?
Cutting through the complexity
The architect authors – myself, Paul Eaton, Roger Holdsworth and Gary Tidmarsh – expand on this theme in Cutting through the Complexity: Design, Construction and Maintenance of High-Rise Housing. To meet higher technical standards, particularly around environmental performance and fire safety, all new homes have become increasingly complex and costly to build and to maintain. Designers and developers do not adequately address ease of maintenance and replacement of aging components.
Wall construction in London traditionally consisted of bricks, mortar and plaster. The modern equivalent has up to 20 types of component, including membranes, gaskets, seals, insulation, linings and cladding support structures, all from different sources and put together on site.
Tall buildings are especially complex and costly to build and maintain because of access issues and performance requirements, which increase with height. Components will require regular replacement in the lifetime of the building and guarantees rarely exceed 30 years.
The authors advocate more research into whole-wall systems. They want them independently tested, fabricated, installed and maintained by one supplier and backed by one guarantor.
Experiencing the High Life
Kath Scanlon in her chapter Experiencing the High Life and David Salvi in Why Towers are a Hard Sell come at the user experience from very different perspectives. Both acknowledge that high-rise living can be a popular choice in London for students and professional single people and couples, but rarely works for families. David finds high-rise living better suited to private renters than buyers, and points out that the resale value of leaseholds in towers lost value between 2014 and 2022.
Kath shows that academic studies of high-rise living are largely out of date and tend to focus on social housing. Recent research by the LSE has started to fill that gap, and an informal survey for this book goes further and suggests strong dissatisfaction from leaseholders – not with high-density living per se, but with the management of their blocks and with rising service charges. Most respondents regard their flats as a short-term step towards the ultimate dream of a house.
Tall buildings and public open space
My essay In Search of the Radiant City looks at the amount of public and shared open space delivered by developments involving tall buildings as an example of their wider social and environmental impacts. London has lots of existing open space, but it is very unevenly distributed. There is a correlation between the poorer boroughs and lack of open space, and the borough with the most tall towers is among those with the least open space.
Most of us claim to value open space and there are all sorts of planning policies to protect and enhance it, and and to prevent degrading and over-burdening it. And yet our case studies reveal widely-differing provision in recent super-dense developments, ranging from generous to non-existent.
This raises some important questions about how much we really value open space, and whether related planning policies are being relegated to achieve housing growth targets. It may be that delivering more homes justifies a reduction in access to open space, or it may be that we need to rethink our approach to high-rise housing.
In any event, we need better evidence on which to base such decisions, and we need to consider the case for a minimum target amount of nearby public open space for every new resident and, potentially, every worker. Camden has introduced this, but there is no London-wide analysis or formula.
Making an informed choice
The book provides a starting point for more comprehensive and continuing research, which should help to inform decisions about London’s future character and built form.
It seems to be widely accepted among London’s planning authorities and its development industry that tall buildings are an essential component in meeting London’s housing targets, but there is a lack of evidence to support this and still less analysis of the long-term sustainability of superdense development. Although many people and organisations have shown interest in our work, there is also reticence about examining awkward issues which may challenge the established way of doing things.
We have a choice about whether and where to continue building tall, and about how to meet the growing challenges which that entails.Let’s make it an informed choice.
Andrew Beharrell is a senior advisor and former senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE) and co-author of a series of influential reports which aim to improve the quality of housing design and placemaking. Learn more how London has grown up and the relationship between height and density, by reading another book to which he contributed, Superdensity the Sequel (2015). Image: One West Point, North Acton.