The trend for high rise living in the UK can be tracked from the post-war period, when there was a strong emphasis on regeneration of inner-city areas and to replace the homes lost during the Second World War. Back then Local Authorities were responsible for much of the delivery with central government grants given out to those authorities that delivered more homes and at a greater height. This drive also revolutionised construction, including the development of pre-fabricated buildings. Their triumphs were short-lived, with many estates suffering from social decline and poor maintenance. This culminated in the Ronan Point disaster in 1968 where a pre-fabricated tower block partially collapsed following gas explosion.
Fast forward to the noughties, pre-2008, and fuelled by increasing house prices, high rise housing appeared to be back in favour, with numerous developments popping up across cities in the UK. However, many of these developments were targeted at young professionals and the wealthy. The recession swiftly brought about the mothballing of countless schemes. During the recession attention turned towards providing high rise housing for students. This led to schemes such as 17 New Wakefield Street in Manchester and the Sky Plaza in Leeds, the first and second tallest student buildings in the world, respectively.
In 2012 Barton Willmore, Knight Frank and EC Harris LLP published a report which showed a new wave of residential towers coming to the London skyline. It showed the premium for living at the top was driving tower developments. And it’s not just residential. Barton Willmore secured a resolution to grant permission for Aria Developments Ltd’s mixed-use regeneration scheme at Malgavita Works in London. Alongside 225 homes, the scheme features a coffee shop, gym and communal space.
Post-recession, whilst much of the focus remains on student housing, there is a new emphasis being driven by the private rented sector and a resurging housing market.
Recent proposed changes to government housing policy place new emphasis on higher density living and city centre regeneration. This has led many developers and some Local Authorities to champion the arrival of tall buildings in their cities, not only as a means to address the housing crisis but also as they are sometimes seen as beacons of light, demonstrating that their city is progressive and open to investment.
This is evident in Newcastle where a 26-storey scheme containing 162 private rented sector apartments has recently been approved on a brownfield site in the city centre, despite concerns raised about its impact on heritage assets. This quickly led to proposals for a 35-storey building complete with an observation deck. Articles appeared in the local media such as “Dubai-style skyscraper could become Newcastle’s tallest building” and “Newcastle as a Skyscraper City”. The Council was quick to follow with stories in the paper about tall buildings and the benefits and wider implications they could have on the city.
In my opinion tall buildings in the right location can have a positive impact on a city and help create a strong identity and sense of place (most people could recognise the New York or Los Angeles skylines despite never going there), but we also need to make sure that they are built for the right purposes, and remain well used, well liked and well maintained. Concerns will also remain in cities outside of London about the cost of such buildings and all too often schemes that start off with good intentions can quickly become the next blight on our skylines (see Trinity Square Gateshead, shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup in 2014).
Whilst tall residential buildings in London have always been and will continue to be driven by high land values, a growing population and overseas interest, residential buildings outside of the capital are more subject to trends, the economy and the shifting attitudes.
Whether or not the latest trend currently gripping cities outside of the capital survives in the long term is unclear, but for now it seems as if high rise living will remain on the horizon.
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