Tower Block Lessons

The Grenfell Tower disaster has provoked fierce debate on a wide range of issues, one of which is the future of high rise construction itself. It is a topic which is of particular concern to the residents of Brighton & Hove where the council itself owns over forty buildings which are over 18 meters in height. It is also proposed to build further residential towers of up to 40 storeys in many parts of the city. These include the Marina, Preston Park, Lewes Road, Hove Station and the King Alfred site on the sea front.

The author and journalist Sir Simon Jenkins, who is President of the Regency Society of Brighton & Hove, has written a damning article in The Guardian newspaper, in which he says the building of residential towers should stop all together. I have myself, as the West Hill representative to the Council’s Conservation Advisory Group, often been concerned by the harmful visual impact of tower blocks on the character of this and other conservation areas and heritage assets, but Jenkins’ case against high rise is far wider in its scope. He asserts that they are “anti-social, high maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly and can never be truly safe”. High rise certainly means high maintenance when it is revealed that the cost of refurbishing the Grenfell Tower in 2016 was £8.7 million. This works out at between £60k and £70k per flat! Even so, there are claims that even more was needed to be spent in order to ensure adequate fire safety. The Guardian article makes the point that no fire engine can reach up to 20 storeys. It is interesting, therefore, that whilst the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service does sometimes comment on planning applications it appears to have made no comment on either the Anston House tower blocks or the Ellen Street towers near Hove station.

The claim that residential tower blocks are unnecessary is also made by the chairman of the Brighton Society. At a ‘Tall Buildings Forum’ earlier this year, the retired architect produced a 3D model which demonstrated that high rise is not necessary to achieve high housing densities, whilst Jenkins cites the example of central Paris where three times the housing density is achieved without the tower blocks now so common in London. Jenkins rubbishes the idea that cities must “build high to survive” by making reference to the amount of derelict land and under-occupied existing houses, issues with which, sadly, Brighton &  Hove are only too familiar. He also explains that demand for high rise is driven by “high income migratory couples and foreign buy-to-leave investors”. These people do not want a neighbourhood. Their social life is not rooted in the immediate locality and so they want a gate to keep the locals out and a penthouse pied-a-terre, with a view that only money can buy. The Ellen Street development in Hove was refused by councillors (on the recommendation of planning officers) because the developers would not provide an acceptable level of affordable housing. The reason given being that more affordable housing would make the scheme “unviable”. This does seem to support the idea that high rise means high cost and it will be interesting to see whether the developers in this case will produce any viable alternative.

Jim Gowans


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