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New Advice on Tall Buildings Amid Surge in Proposals

  • Updated advice to guide planning of tall buildings amid a surge in proposals
  • Tall buildings have a profound effect on the character of our cities
  • Careful consideration needed on the location and design of tall buildings

Historic England has today published advice to guide the planning and design of tall buildings. The Government body (previously known as English Heritage) says that tall buildings should make a positive contribution to city life. But, in today's advice it warns that tall buildings, by virtue of their size and widespread visibility, can seriously harm places. It goes on to say that England has seen many examples of tall buildings that have had a lasting, adverse impact on the historic environment. The guidance comes amid a surge in new applications for tall buildings, which need Historic England's advice at the planning application stage.

The ruins of St Alphage Church in the City of London with tower block in the background
The ruins of St Alphage Church in the City of London with the then newly built (and now demolished) St Alphage House tower block in the background © Historic England (Photographed by John Gay, c.1962)

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said:

"There are many tall buildings being proposed at the moment, particularly in London, that could have a profound effect on the character of the place where people, work and live. The aim of the planning system is to deliver economic success whilst reinforcing local distinctiveness. We can do this if we all take real care to ensure that tall buildings are not just beautifully designed, but also in the right place. London's historic environment is one of our greatest assets - culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London's identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged.

"We have updated our advice on planning for tall buildings so it reflects our recent experience and restates the commitment in national planning policy to protect the historic environment."

The Walkie-Talkie building viewed through Tower Bridge
20 Fenchurch Street, London (‘Walkie Talkie’) seen through Tower Bridge, London © Historic England

The advice is a new edition (last published in 2007) reflecting the National Planning Policy Framework which recognises the importance of protecting the historic environment and the need for high-quality design, as well as a need for sustainable development.

Tall buildings can define the image and identity of towns and cities. They can represent the best of modern architecture and some have been listed as the best examples of their period. However, tall buildings can also harm the qualities that people value about a place by being poorly designed and by being in the wrong location.

Historic England recommends that the following steps are taken when planning for tall buildings:

  • Assess appropriate locations for tall buildings in the local plan
    Local plans provide an overall vision for a place and through consultation with the local community they identify which areas, if any, are appropriate for the development of tall buildings. These plans should also be drawn up with advice from relevant bodies such as Historic England so they maintain the protection of the historic environment and the qualities that make the area special.
    Local plans should identify appropriate locations for tall buildings after consultation with the local community and they should reflect national planning policy. In London, local authorities need to also take into account the policies in the London Plan and protected views.
  • Use the local plan to take a managed approach to development
    Tall buildings should reflect a positive, managed approach to development, rather than being the result of speculative applications for development. The advantages of including tall buildings policies in local plans include identifying the role and areas appropriate for tall buildings as part of an overall vision for a place and protecting the historic places that make an area special.
  • Identify the elements that create local character
    A successful urban design framework identifies the roles and characters of different areas, including their historic interest such as scale and height, landmark buildings and their settings, including important local views and panoramas.
  • Discuss proposals before making a planning application
    Before making a planning application it is good practice to discuss proposals with the local planning authority and other relevant parties such as Historic England in order to identify where the proposed building will be seen from, and which protected historic places might be affected.
  • Consider the cumulative effect of other concurrent tall building proposals
    Where a proposal is part of a cluster it should have a positive relationship within the cluster. We recommend the use of modelling and visuals to fully assess the impact of the proposed building on the surrounding area.
  • Set high standards of design
    Because of their scale, mass and likely longevity, tall buildings need to show exemplary design qualities. Good design takes the opportunity to improve the character and quality of an area and responds to local character and history.
  • Give consideration to the building's public space and facilities
    It's important to consider internal and external public space as part of a well-designed public realm. Consideration of the effect on the local environment is also important, such as overshadowing, light pollution and the micro-climate around the base of such buildings. Well-designed tall buildings provide an inclusive environment, taking opportunities to improve the accessibility and legibility of the wider townscape.

Point Royal tower block
The Grade II listed Point Royal tower block, Bracknell, Berkshire © Historic England
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