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Birmingham's Skyscrapers: Can The City's Planning Policy Take The Weight?

Today the Birmingham skyline is mostly low-rise. But the city is in the grip of a skyscraper revolution. In the last month Rockspring/Sterling’s 26-storey office tower at 103 Colmore Row moved towards construction. Just days earlier Moda Living's proposals for a 42-storey luxury rented residential tower at Broad Street were approved.

As the first voices of concern about the effects towers have on the city make themselves heard, does Birmingham City Council have a policy that can cope?

Birmingham skyline

You cannot move in Birmingham without bumping into tower proposals, old and new. The new proposals range from offices and hotels to the 29-storey build-to-rent tower planned for Monaco House. The old include long-nurtured and long-delayed plans for the 30-storey Beorma Tower.

Yet dozens of new proposals are being judged against an increasingly ancient planning document. Birmingham City Council’s High Places document, which sets the planning framework for tall buildings, was published in 2003.

A review was announced in 2016 amidst suggestions that this could liberalise a poilcy which has, until now, confined tall buildings to Birmingham’s central ridge of higher ground from Five Ways to Lancaster Circus.

Birmingham City Council told Bisnow the tall buildings review is still in progress with a view to guidance being included in the forthcoming Birmingham Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document.

Yet the policy vacuum comes as concerns about some tower plans gather strength: this week St Joseph’s plans for a 21-storey block at Snow Hill Wharf was questioned over its impact on St Chad’s Cathedral and Gun Wharf.

Rethink Quality

Restaurant at the top of Rockspring/Sterling's 103 Colmore Row tower, Birmingham

Damien Holdstock, associate director in the Birmingham office of planning consultant Turley, advised on the 26-storey Bloc hotel tower at Hill Street which prompted the 2016 review.

“The 2003 policy worked well but now needs to be refreshed,” Holdstock said. “The context is changing, we’re seeing a lot more proposals, and the towers are getting taller.”

“What is vitally important is that a new policy has a focus on high-quality design — these buildings will be so prominent on the Birmingham skyline and they have to be good.”

“The existing policy is 15 years old, and maybe there is more scope to look at other locations, too — for instance, tall buildings next to transport hubs,” he said.

With an eye to the controversy that has raged over plans fronted by Manchester United Class of '92 star Gary Neville for a tower overlooking Manchester Town Hall, Holdstock said the new policy must also protect heritage assets.

Think About The Ground Floor

103 Colmore Row, Birmingham — one of many new towers in the city

“The 2003 document is now largely out of date,” CBRE Birmingham Head of Planning Gary Cardin said. “It does need a rethink.”

According to Cardin, the new policy must focus developers’ attention a little less on what happens at the top of tall buildings and a little more on what happens at the bottom.

“Development is already spread off the central Birmingham ridge line into other areas, and the policy needs to be broadened to allow consideration of other areas. But the pressure is to ask how you manage the wider context of tall buildings,” Cardin said.

“The issues are about adjacent buildings and uses, and what happens on the ground floor, on the space around tall buildings. A new policy could draw attention to the policy context on those kinds of issues, because if there is a risk of a lack of clarity of what the policy is, this is it.”

Reach For The Sky

Moda Living's skyscraper at Broad Street

With or without a new policy framework, Birmingham is reaching for the sky.

The Rockspring/Sterling Property Ventures office tower at 103 Colmore Row will rise to 346 feet high. Because it is placed on that famous central ridge it will soar  807 feet above sea level. That is in the territory of small mountains.

“A revised tall buildings policy is all about locations for me,” Sterling Property Ventures Managing Director James Howarth said.

“I would like to see a clear direction about where clusters of tall buildings are encouraged, maybe some more clarity on that, and on where exceptions to the rule about sticking to the central spine might be considered, for instance in the Snowhill area.”

Birmingham is undoubtedly going up in the world in the most obvious sense possible, but so far the policy context is not going with it.