In defence of... suburban skyscrapers

An artist’s impression of Hale Works. Image: Anthology.

The London Borough of Haringey is hardly famous for skyscrapers. Its tallest structure is Alexandra Palace, not just because it’s sat on a big hill, but owing to its vast radio mast, installed when the BBC used the Palace for early television recording in the 1930s.

Since then, most developments in Haringey have been smaller-scale; quasi-modern housing estates and balcony-laden mid-rise flats. Barring Stratford, the same is true of most of outer London. Given that Haringey is loaded with conservation areas from Highgate to Crouch End, perhaps it’s better they’ve kept things squat.

But on the opposite side of the borough, it’s a different story. In Tottenham’s Hale Village, developers Anthology are creating a vast tower, part of a new residential development centred around Tottenham Hale station. Originally planned to be 18 stories high, the tower, christened Hale Works, is now expected to be 30.

A nondescript block of glass and concrete, it’s easy to see why such a “suburban skyscraper” would draw attacks from the surrounding community. We’ve grown used to criticising tall towers ever since we tired of the Gherkin’s playful dissonance. Developments like the Walkie Talkie and the Cheese Grater have only, well, grated. Tall buildings are expected to be incongruent and unpleasant, and Hale Village doesn’t look like an exception.

So how could anyone possibly defend suburban skyscrapers? Firstly, the distant view of tall buildings contributes to a sense of "placemaking". Despite sounding pseudo-intellectual, it’s a valuable concept: one that causes us to associate the Elizabeth Tower with Westminster or The BT Tower with Holborn. Being able to see a structure from a distance helps us understand where we are in relation to it, and when we reach it, we identify with it. And so, a neighbourhood can expect greater sense of identity if they unite around a monument.

This tends to be especially true of monuments like Big Ben that pay architectural homage to a certain time or style. But modern buildings aren’t excluded from this trend: the terracotta pots of the new White Hart Lane station help recognise the area’s industrial heritage.

Tall buildings are also a great focal point for community services, such as libraries, community centres, leisure centres, and, of course, viewing platforms. Developers are actually obliged to provide for more of these services in tall developments because they accrue a higher number of dwellings per acre, especially in the suburbs, where these towers are almost totally residential. Studies like Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People emphasise just how important pieces of “social infrastructure” are in building more cohesive communities. If a taller development can promise more of these services in areas with poorer provision, that’s no bad thing.


Of course, there’s always the question of slippery slopes in planning: approve one tall building, and developers will think they can get away with more. But compared to a dense city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, the UK has sufficiently archaic planning legislation to prevent the mass proliferation of tall buildings, at least in areas where they're less appropriate.

Location surveys like this, working in tandem with the principles set out in the London Plan, help focus in tall developments to where they make the most sense. There’s a cluster of tall buildings in the eastern corner of the City because that’s where the fewest conservation areas are. And all this is without even considering “protected views”, like those of London’s greatest placemaking monument, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each borough also has lots of “strategic views” that work in a similar way; for example, it’s unlikely Haringey will approve planning permission for a building that blocks the view to Ally Pally.

Given all this, you might be asking which tall buildings fulfil these lofty conditions of placemaking and positioning. In fact, there’s one just down the road from Hale Village.

Lock 47 is built to look like a docker’s warehouse with the spec of a residential tower, located along a branch of the Lea and ripe for riverside activity. It’s inspiring in a way that the Hale Works isn’t, and yet it was almost dismissed for being too tall.

But tallness doesn’t always imply ugliness, as proven by Haringey’s current tallest building. Alexandra Palace is tall and tactful without being an eyesore, precisely because it respects – and even enhances – its surrounding neighbourhood. If developers and planners alike learn to respect the relationships between palaces and the people, we can make tall buildings more popular in the suburbs – not just for those that live inside them, but for those that live around them as well.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.