The first guidance document on tall buildings produced 14 years ago by English Heritage and Cabe was launched via a press conference at the top of New Zealand House in Haymarket.

The first guidance document on tall buildings produced 14 years ago by English Heritage and Cabe was launched via a press conference at the top of New Zealand House in Haymarket.

The guidance filled a vacuum, since then as now the certainties about tall buildings were few and far between. We know where we definitely cannot build tall; that is to say where there are specific views protected in law. In the case of London, views of St Paul’s are sacrosanct, though the views can be and have been modified and supplemented.

However, there is no equivalent certainty about where you can build tall. Or what constitutes ‘tall’. In recent years, following public inquiries that approved the Heron Tower, the Shard and the Walkie Talkie, more than 200 tall buildings have been submitted and/or approved in London - taking tall to mean anything more than 12 storeys. At that height, as Cabe’s first chairman Stuart Lipton used to say, you can generally see across the capital

This flood of tower proposals has produced a reaction from a broad alliance of people concerned about ‘excessive’ height, quality of design, appropriateness of location and so on. The Observer has been leading a campaign to demand greater rigour in the way we think about these matters, and it has attracted not merely the usual suspects, but developers and architects, some of whom have designed tall buildings themselves.

Now English Heritage and Design Council Cabe have said they will be revising their guidance in light of the National Planning Policy Framework and the experience of scrutinising tower applications over the last decade. No doubt the revisions will be useful to developers and architects alike, but they will act mainly as a reminder of the fundamental questions raised by the location and design of this now ubiquitous building type.

Location is critical and the original guidance acknowledged that on occasions there would be a difference of opinion between English Heritage and Cabe about the appropriateness of a specific site. This struck me then, as it does now, as being a mature way to discuss these things.

There can be a difference of opinion about location based not on dogma but on the way one ‘reads’ a city and its buildings. For example, the grade I-listed church opposite the Heron Tower seems to me to be enhanced by the juxtaposition with its large-scale neighbour, rather than diminished. The scale difference gives a clarity and presence to the historic structure. But I can quite understand how others would take a different view. That is why we have a planning system and public inquiries.

I doubt if there would be much disagreement about the generality of where tall buildings might be located, even though politicians seem remarkably reluctant to draw lines on a map. They should surely be within fairly easy walking distance of major public transport interchanges, thereby obviating the need for car parking.

Why don’t we simply draw walking circles around such transport nodes and posit such areas as suitable? This would not mean automatic planning approval, since the design of buildings would need to be considered, along with the effect on its environs. On which subject the revised tall buildings guidance will doubtless emphasise the importance not just of overall design quality, but of the way the building meets the ground, how it makes a positive contribution to the public urban realm, and how it meets the sky.

London’s skyline is an asset that is worth protecting, but in a way that does not exclude good additions. In many cases, it is far more interesting now than it was 20 years ago. But the price of good quality is eternal vigilance, not a hat being passed round for Crossrail contributions, whatever the design.

Let’s have the best guidance we can get, but let’s also remember that it is the decision-takers who, in the end, count.

Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival.

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