Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale Neighbourhood Plan Delivery Group
28 September 2022
RBWM Building Height and Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document
Below is the Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale Neighbourhood Plan Delivery Group (AS&SNPDG) response to the Consultation on the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead - Building Height and Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document - June 2022 - Consultation Draft document. For the full letter click here.
The Building Height and Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document - June 2022 - Consultation Draft:
fails to respect and comply with the requirements in BLP policy QP3a smacks strongly of an attempt to invent new policy lacks clarity and precise definitions of all the key terms ignores and/or minimizes the key constraint – that there must be exceptional reasons to permit a tall building in RBWM is likely to deliver exactly what many residents feared i.e. actively invite controversial tall building applications
As it stands neither the Consultation Draft Building Height and Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) nor the Technical and Baseline Study (TBS) on which the SPD is based comply with the specific requirements, context, and intent expressed very clearly in Borough Local Plan (BLP) Policy QP3a. The SPD is fundamentally flawed and would require extensive revision in order to be compliant.
Despite the Inspector’s very clear identification and expression in her final report of the fundamental principle that should guide the SPD - that in the majority of cases in RBWM there must be truly exceptional reasons for a tall building which exceeds the context height – it appears that the main purpose of this SPD is to ignore, water down or minimise the constraints on tall building in RBWM. As such the SPD is effectively creating new policy, and this is untenable and unacceptable.
The purpose of this consultation response is to evaluate the extent to which the SPD is in accordance with policy QP3a and Explanatory Text. The starting point for this is to understand that the SPD is not policy: it is intended to build upon and provide more detailed advice or guidance on a policy or policies in an adopted local plan. An SPD is not itself part of the development plan and cannot introduce new planning policy or override existing planning policy.
Therefore in providing more detailed advice or guidance it cannot change, expand, alter, reduce, or limit the principles or provisions in the policy. These principles or provisions are the framework within which the SPD should seek to provide more detail and the clear intent behind the policy must be fully upheld. No more and no less.
Borough Local Plan (BLP)
The adopted Borough Local Plan policies define the scope and intent of the SPD in Policy QP3a and Explanatory Text. It is worth quoting in full from key paragraphs in the policy as they establish both the scope and most importantly the intent with which the SPD must comply. We have emboldened the critical phrases for emphasis:
6.14.4 Tall buildings with a height of 1.5 to 2.5 times the context height will be prominent and outstanding features in an area. Thus any building exceeding 1.5 times the context height of the surrounding area (or a minimum of 4 storeys in a 2 storey area) will be defined as a tall building for the purpose of Policy QP3a. Whilst their height is exceptional, they retain a proportionate relationship with their context and commonly are perceived as integral parts of a local townscape. Buildings with heights above 2.5 times the context height rise up into the sky and have a more detached relationship with the lower rise context. Such a relationship is only justifiable in places with highly urban and central characteristics where this increased height forms part of the place character, supports intensification and visually marks a place of district-wide importance on the skyline. The only place in the Royal Borough where a building of such increased height may be acceptable is within the town centre of Maidenhead. In the remainder of the Royal Borough, heights of above 2.5 times the context height will not generally be appropriate.
6.14.8 Generally a tall building proposal should form part of the comprehensive development of a large site where it can contribute to the regeneration and enhancement of a wider urban area. Tall buildings should only be considered where they are part of a plan-led and collaborative strategy for change. As part of this approach, tall buildings must complement existing townscape characteristics or positively contribute to place making and enhance the legibility of areas.
6.14.9 Proposals for tall buildings will need to carefully consider and test their potential impact on sensitive heritage, landscape and townscape assets in their immediate and wider surroundings.
6.14.10 Due to their visual prominence, tall buildings will need to integrate positively with their context and contribute to a sense of place and local pride. Policy QP3a provides key location and design principles that will ensure that tall buildings are only brought forward in the right places, with an appropriate height and can achieve the highest architectural and urban design quality.
So, to summarise, the SPD must make it clear that the only place within the Borough where buildings with heights above 2.5 times the context height may be acceptable is within Maidenhead Town Centre; that tall buildings should only be considered as part of a plan-led and collaborative strategy for change; that potential adverse impact on sensitive heritage, landscape and townscape assets in the immediate and wider surroundings must be considered; and that proposals for tall buildings are only brought forward in the right places with an appropriate height.
It is our considered view that the SPD fails to fully comply with the policy. The 10 Tall Building Principles (SPD: paragraph 4.1 page 26), as drafted, pose a real risk of becoming standalone principles, divorced from the precise wording and intent of the policy. There is a risk that these principles become – in effect – new policy.
Guidance documents - such as Historic England Advice Note 4 Tall Buildings - are cited as underpinning the SPD to ensure that it is based on best practice guidance, but have been used selectively, and many relevant points have been omitted.
RBWM’s ‘pick and mix’ approach to the underpinning evidence base ignores and omits anything that might limit the construction of tall buildings across the Borough. This has to be set against the very clear direction from the Inspector that in the majority of cases there should be ‘exceptional’ circumstances to permit the construction of a tall building which exceeds the context height.
This is what the Inspector said (para 132 of her final report):
“In summary, the policy is intended to convey that tall buildings should be exceptional; defined and height-limited relative to the existing “context height” in any given place; confined to urban settings and sites where they can aid intensification and/or mark somewhere important in an area; and be acceptable in respect of the usual factors including townscape, landscape, heritage and amenity etc.”
The Inspector was well aware that many residents were worried that adding Policy QP3a to the Plan would invite controversial tall building applications. The Inspector positioned the SPD as a necessary response to an issue with the potential to significantly affect the character of the Borough. Policy QP3 Character and Design of New Development Paragraph 6.14.11 states that: ‘The Royal Borough will prepare a Building Height and Tall Buildings SPD. This will identify locations that present opportunities for tall buildings in the Royal Borough, together with site-specific recommendations on building height. It will provide additional detailed guidance on location, height and design of tall buildings and set application requirements for tall buildings.’
It is, in our opinion, one thing to identify possible opportunities for tall buildings but such guidance must be balanced by equal emphasis on the limits, the restrictions, and the full range of conditions that apply to tall buildings, in order that they are correctly positioned as the ‘exception’ to the rule, and that controversial and/or inappropriate tall buildings that would change the character of the Borough are actively discouraged.
As we have said the SPD quotes selectively from the evidence base. In particular Historic England Advice Note 4 – Tall buildings is quoted in the Tall Building Strategy Document and also cited selectively in the SPD (paragraphs 1.5.5 – 1.5.8) as best practice advice. Having read the full text of the Advice Note it is clear that the general principles and guidelines it describes are both relevant and also very helpful. It is hard to understand why some of these key points have not been included in the SPD.
In some cases points are included but the language has been weakened e.g. Advice Note 4 says: ’Ensure that the setting of heritage assets are protected from any potential negative impact from tall buildings’ but the SPD talks about ’how to minimise potential impacts on local character and heritage…’.
Advice Note 4 does not take a negative stance against tall buildings. It states that ‘tall buildings can have positive impacts upon an area, particularly if they are part of a wider regeneration scheme’. However, it also states that for tall buildings to be successful measures to control the location and design of such structures must be embedded in local planning documents. Other key points in Advice Note 4 include the following:
•Reduce inappropriate applications for tall buildings in the wrong places;
•Ensure that tall building applications fully consider the impacts on local people.
•Identify sites where removal of existing tall buildings may enhance the environment;
•Identify whether tall buildings are the most appropriate way to deliver high densities or whether another solution is more appropriate.
Advice Note 4 also states that the existence of a tall building on a site is not a justification for a replacement building of the same scale or on an adjoining site. Finally Advice Note 4 talks about the need for a proportionate evidence base including the assessment of the historic environment to underpin development plan policies. The more heritage sensitivities there are, the more detailed the evidence will need to be in order to produce robust policies and to provide clear expectations. In light of this we would urge RBWM to produce a comprehensive Borough-wide list of non-designated heritage assets as soon as possible.
Definition of Terms
The definition of the main terms – context height, tall building, large building, storeys vs height - is fundamentally important. The definitions of key terms, such as ‘context height’, are brief, lacking in detail, selective, and distributed throughout the SPD rather than being positioned clearly up-front in the document.
In the SPD (paragraph 1.5.10 point 4) a Tall Building is defined as ‘a building of more than 1.5 times the context height of the surrounding area or a minimum of 4 storeys in a 2 storey area’. This is consistent with what it says in Policy QP3a but it emerges in the SPD that the guidance also covers large buildings but no definition is provided until paragraph 3.2.12 where it states that buildings up to 1.5x context height are not tall buildings but are considered to be “large buildings” and apparently a large building is a contextual building that provides a local height accent, for example with a slightly taller corner element, and by this contributes to a varied urban fabric. Can we just say that It would be extremely helpful if this definition could be included at an earlier point in the SPD e.g. with the tall building definition at paragraph 1.5.10 point 4?
Similarly, the explanation that the term ‘storeys’ refers to a generic residential storey of 3metres in height (paragraph 2.1.6) is very important and it would be extremely helpful if this was also included adjacent to the tall building definition (paragraph 1.5.9 point 4). It would also be useful for the benefit of the reader to put metre values in perspective. For instance a 10 metre high building would typically contain 3 residential storeys. But in reality, the exact height of a storey will vary from building to building and will typically be higher than 3m in commercial buildings.
Context height is another vexed issue. The very brief definition of the term ‘context height’ in the SPD (paragraph 2.1.4) leaves out more than it actually includes. Contrary to the impression given by the SPD establishing the context height is not cut and dried. We can understand the appeal in seeking to establish a formula but in an area like the Borough each case is different. For example we refer back to the Inspector’s comments about AL7 – Maidenhead Railway Station in her final report (paragraphs 148 and 149). The inspector notes that ‘this site is allocated in the submitted Plan for a mix of uses and is seen a key “gateway” to the town. Consequently, the proforma requires a high quality, distinctive design, incorporating a “landmark building” fronting Grenfell Park. No specific height is mentioned, but a building of up to 13 storeys (or 40m) is envisaged as recommended by the Tall Buildings Strategy (PC-038)’. The Inspector goes on to say: ‘However, a building of this size would utterly dominate and be incompatible with the scale of the 2-storey dwellings to the immediate north of the site and the low-rise flats to the south across the railway line. Therefore, notwithstanding the nature and status of this site individually, the impact of such a tall building upon the neighbouring uses would be incompatible with the Council’s wider place-shaping agenda. Future development proposals on the site should reflect the character and appearance of the area, and MM65 is necessary to ensure that the policy is effective in this regard. It requires a modest tall building, respectful to neighbouring uses, as part of an outstanding and distinctive design’. This is the context height issue in a nutshell.
The Tall Buildings Strategy document was initially prepared for RBWM to support the draft BLP, and subsequently updated. Unfortunately mere updating is insufficient to overcome the main issue – that the Tall Buildings Strategy document predates the decisions made by the Inspector during the course of the examination and the significant changes to the policy regarding tall buildings. As a consequence the Tall Buildings Strategy document (which incidentally seems confused as to whether it is a strategy or a study) relies too heavily on the NPPF as the main evidence base and not the adopted BLP, which should determine the strategic direction of the SPD.
That said, the Tall Buildings Strategy Final Report April 2022 (Update) provides a better explanation of what the term context height really means and how it should be used, with practical examples. It is worthwhile quoting from it and asking why these points are not included in the SPD?
• A more varied town centre with buildings ranging between 3 and 6 storeys could actually have a context height of 4 storeys, based on a professional assessment.
• The importance of understanding context height is that it is a key element in defining the character of a place.
• Context height also has a direct consequence on levels of overshadowing, overlooking and privacy, which affect the quality of residential environments and public spaces.
• That high density development can be delivered without high rise buildings (our emphasis). Figure 4.1 in the Tall Buildings Strategy Final Report April 2022 (Update) shows how compact urban blocks of less than 8 storeys can deliver higher residential densities than taller developments of up to 13 storeys.
Why is this important? Well, the overwhelming impression we have gained from the information that has been omitted in the definition of terms, as with the use of the evidence base, is that the aim of the SPD is to ignore anything that would provide an argument against a tall building in a specific location.
We have identified a significant error that cannot be left without comment. In paragraph 2.1.1 of the consultation draft SPD Ascot is described as an ‘urban conurbation’. The standard definition of the term urban conurbation is ‘an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of a central city’. This is not a term that can reasonably be applied to Ascot and must be refuted. The RBWM Townscape Assessment identifies Ascot as a Victorian Village and not an urban conurbation. This must be corrected.
In conclusion we must return to the Inspector’s intent, which is expressed in Policy QP3a, and is that in the majority of cases in RBWM there must be truly exceptional reasons for a tall building which exceeds the context height.
We understand the purpose of the SPD is to provide further detail on locational opportunities for tall building development, together with any site-specific requirements. However, it is our view that the SPD has strayed over the boundary and from merely identifying locations where an increase in building height could be acceptable in exceptional circumstances, the SPD gives the strong impression that tall buildings in these locations are fully acceptable, and the constraints that will affect each and every potential site are downplayed.
As we said at the start of this consultation response, this SPD is fundamentally flawed and requires extensive revision in order to be fully compliant with the requirements, constraints and intent expressed in the BLP and Policy QP3a.
For and on Behalf of the AS&S NPDG Steering Committee