Not all plots are equal. The planning system should give developers clarity on which are suitable for towers, says David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

This may not be a thing… Certainly if you google “the Chicago effect” all you get is an article about how the architecture of the city has been transformed in the last two decades.

It is, however, a phrase I have been using since I visited the city a few years ago. It came up at a recent workshop in Sheffield in which developers and architects were invited to discuss what should be in the planning department’s new Urban Design Compendium including its tall buildings policy.

The Chicago effect describes the situation, as it was explained to me, where perfectly good sites remain undeveloped for years because the owner is holding out for a tower. Why would you sterilise a site by putting up a six-storey apartment or office building when you might wait a few years until a tower becomes viable?

This is a useful antidote to my enthusiasm about Manchester’s exploding skyline expressed in this column last month. If any site in a city can be a tower then developers will start paying over the odds for sites in the expectation that they will get a tower consent. The risk is that you kill off the market for the solid five- to seven-storey urban block which is the backbone of any large city.

Architects have often fantasised about a city of towers, going back to Raymond Hood’s “City of Needles” in the 1920s. But the reality is that towers work best as highlights rising above mid-rise city blocks. If you undermine the market for those blocks what you get is towers surrounded by undifferentiated space, creating the Dubai effect that I worried about last month. In Chicago, of course, the undifferentiated space is not landscape but car parking.

This was debated in the Sheffield workshop where there was a contingent, as you would expect, who argued that planning should get out of the way and allow developers to do their job. It was hard enough putting together viable schemes for tall buildings in Sheffield without planning policy making it harder. Towers should be considered on their merits and no part of the city centre, at least outside conservation areas, should be off limits (and even within conservation areas, like the Cultural Industries Quarter there was scope for some taller buildings).

This, effectively, is the Manchester policy and the question is what effect would it have on a city like Sheffield where the property market isn’t quite so frenetic?

The alternative view, and this is something that you don’t often hear from developers, was that planning policy should be more rigid. If developers know unequivocally that one site could have a tower and another could never get consent for one then they have a much clearer idea of the value of each site. They will not be outbid by someone chancing their arm, hoping that they can get consent for a taller building that is then either unacceptable to the planners or unviable, thereby sterilising the site for years. Clear, firm planning policy is good for developers.

This is an argument I heard made last year in an even stranger context, a fringe meeting that I was invited to by Prospect magazine at the Conservative Party conference. The general conclusion in the room was that our contested planning system, where everything is up for grabs and appealable, is one of the reasons that our development industry is so inefficient and indeed why the quality of much development is so poor.

This was contrasted to the Dutch system where plans are debated and consulted on in their preparation but once approved become fixed. There is no further consultation on development because, if it is in line with the plan, why would you consult on something that has already been agreed? Plans are very clear on what can be built on each site in terms of scale, siting and use but say very little about design which is trusted to architects.

This is a much wider issue than tall buildings, of course, and the conclusion of the Sheffield workshop was that arguments could be made for both the prescriptive and the laissez-faire approach.

The problem is that the British planning system achieves neither of these things. It tries to micro-manage the detail with – as my fellow columnist Julia Park pointed out in her recent column – graduate planners with little design training telling experienced architects how to design buildings, while allowing all of the important issues to be debated and consulted on until they become meaningless.

The chaotic British planning system may have created a whole industry of well-paid private-sector planners and lawyers but what it has not created is high-quality development. A bit more firm planning and a bit less debate would be good for developers and for design quality. The “Chicago effect” may not be a thing but, before it gets established, I suggest we broaden the term and just call it the “British effect”.