Are we sure high rise buildings best serve Londoners, and London itself, was the theme underlying the NLA Expert Housing Panel’s fourth and final session. We had presentations from Stuart Baillie (Knight Frank), who chairs the NLA’s Expert Panel on Tall Buildings, and also from June Barnes (housing professional and ex-East Thames Housing Group) and Dickon Robinson (architect and ex-Peabody), both of whom have concerns about the long-term sustainability of high rise housing.
Stuart reminded us that, broadly speaking, London is increasing in height. The NLA’s tall buildings (20+ storeys) 2021 survey
shows an 8% increase in the overall pipeline since 2020, and a 13% increase in the number of planning permissions. Interestingly this trend for height is gathering momentum in outer London too, which now accounts for 37% of the pipeline, an increase of c. 10% from the previous year. This growth is supported by the government ‘help to buy’ programme and value limits for shared ownership which make this tenure suited to outer London. It didn’t escape our notice that many of these outer London Boroughs are Labour-controlled and committed to building new homes for working Londoners.
Views as to the merits of high-rise buildings were mixed. Perhaps the chief issue underlying our discussion was a feeling that we should not be passively sleepwalking into a taller London, but should be having a critical and pragmatic conversation about what this means for things like user satisfaction, design including the public realm, sustainability, lifetime costs and overall policy. This seemed particularly important given that the vast majority (90%) of high rise development is residential.
We reflected on perceptions that people are often more positive about tall commercial buildings than the residential equivalent, and also that other global cities seem to have less of an issue around height than London. Despite these general societal concerns, we noted that within Europe, London leads the way on the quantum of high rise buildings, with Manchester following in second.
We acknowledged that the experience of tall buildings will be different according to the person, company or investor. Whereas for some, a property may be a second home or AirBnB investment, for others it is the primary home, and business investors are largely driven by profitability. This adds to the challenges of understanding what it means to inhabit high rise development, particularly when maintenance costs are typically assessed by a freehold investor at the point of sale, generally equating to every c. 7 years. We discussed how this makes it difficult to track service charges and their impact on residents. Service charges are set at first sale and reviewed annually so when people buy secondhand homes the service charge and sinking fund charges at that point will reflect the then current charges. If they are particularly high this will impact on the capital value of the flat being sold.
In fact understanding the lifecycle costs of high rise residential development was a key topic of discussion. Given the absence of comprehensive data, we were unclear whether high rise living costs leaseholders more over time, than when compared to other building types. We wondered whether there is sufficient policy and guidance on matters like sinking funds and service charges generally, and whether there is enough transparency for people to properly understand the implications before purchasing a property. As with current fire safety issues with homes now being worth less than when bought and leaseholders potentially having to find significant funds for retrofit work.
We queried the sustainability and resilience of tall buildings in the long term, noting the difficulty in achieving climate change commitments within the design. The complexity of higher buildings has the potential to impact long term costs for repair and replacement which in turn impacts on costs to leaseholders and the freeholders of rental blocks. The latter is particularly a concern for more marginal and often younger leaseholders.
Turning to resident experiences, we noted that there is a growing body of research on this, but that it is patchy. While much of it focuses on North America, Hong Kong and the Far East, the LB of Tower Hamlets has undertaken its own research
is a kind of trip advisor for residential developments. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly scope for more research into user experiences.
Ultimately we had no easy answers as to whether high rise buildings best serve Londoners and London. We recognised that land is finite, that people often want to live in city centres, and that there is a housing shortage; all factors which make it difficult to argue against high rise and higher density living. That being said, our discussion showed that there are many complexities involved in this type of development, and we should be actively thinking about the implications of these. We concluded the following:
(1) We need to be gathering comprehensive data in order to identify patterns and respond accordingly. For example, shifts in service charges could be used to inform the design of high rise buildings.
(2) Design has to go beyond the building to include the space between and around buildings, thereby creating good quality places and public realm, knitting communities together.
(3) There is scope for policy and guidance to address some of the concerns around high rise development, and in so doing advance its design quality and therefore the lived experience.