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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 18:13 GMT
The return of high-rise Britain?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Work starts this week on the UK's tallest residential building - a 47 storey, 171m high glass tower in Manchester. Similar projects are planned in cities across the nation; will we all be living high-rise in years to come?

Countless news stories about the soaring cost of housing in the UK underline the point that not everyone will be able to afford a traditional family home in the future.

With work starting on Manchester's new Beetham tower, two-bedroom flats are already selling for £700,000 - seven times the price of an average home in the city. It won't do much to ease the problems of first time buyers or low income earners.

But its developers, and those of other landmark schemes, hope to show that high-rise does not need to mean poor-quality housing - as it did following the tower-building boom of the 1960s.

"It's an extremely sustainable way of using a site," says Beetham architect Ian Simpson. "Why build eight houses on a site when you can build 220 homes?"

In London husband and wife team David Marks and Julia Barfield plan to build Skyhouse, a 30-storey tower with gardens and leisure facilities, and one bedroom flats from £70,000.

But critics, including the British House Builders Federation, are concerned that for the first time in England as many flats are being built as houses. They are calling on the government to act.

£3m penthouse

The first wave of the new generation of high-rise flats undoubtedly caters to the luxury end of the market.

In addition to its Manchester tower, the Beetham Organization has another nearing completion in Liverpool and has started work on one in Birmingham.

Skyhouse gardens
Neighbourhood gardens are included in the Skyhouse plans

While they include studio flats for around £100,000, the prices for larger apartments are far higher, with a two-bedroom home in Birmingham set to cost £800,000.

The Beetham towers feature five star hotels, central locations, luxury accommodation and the cachet of living in a building that just can't escape notice.

In Brighton the council is considering whether to allow world-famous architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to build four futuristic towers with more than a passing resemblance to crumpled tin cans.

And in London plans have been submitted for a 20 storey building next to the Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames, containing restaurants, shops and 28 apartments, nine of which will be priced for people on lower incomes.

High density

While these high profile projects have far more to do with Sex and the City than Only Fools and Horses, advocates say modern high-rises are not just for the wealthy.

Ian Simpson, who designed the Beetham towers, says the UK must encourage more people to live in high density city centre developments.

Frank Gehry's plans for Brighton and Hove
Hove's seafront could be home to Frank Gehry's crumpled towers

He sees the towers as a way of revitalising inner city areas and adds: "Most people have just moved out to the sunny suburbs and have left the city centres to fend for themselves."

He says the technology is now in place to build high without repeating the mistakes of the past.

"In the 60s they were poor quality construction, there was no management regime and their security got broken down over time, so the places became uninhabitable."

Skyhouse architect Julia Barfield says the new generation of towers must cater to a wide spectrum of people - to avoid creating ghettoes where only the very rich or very poor live.

Ms Barfield, who is looking at three sites in south and east London for the project, says towers also need to engage existing residents.

"We have a sky garden for example, where there are communal facilities not just for the residents but for the neighbourhood."

Brownfield sites

While there is a long way to go before we all live in the towers now familiar in many US and Asian cities, there has been a definite shift away from houses towards flats.

Three sites in London are being considered for Skyhouse

Building regulations designed to protect the countryside inevitably mean that many of the flats are built close together on brownfield sites in town and city centres.

The National House Building Council (NHBC) says that in 1997, 47% of new homes built in the south-east were detached houses, while 14% were flats. By 2003, 46% of new homes were flats, compared to 19% detached houses.

Across England as a whole the proportion of detached houses fell from 44% to 32% between 1997 and 2002. Over the same period the proportion of flats rose from 15% to 32%.

The change is worrying the British House Builders Federation, which is calling on the government and planners to correct what it sees as a growing imbalance in the market.

"It is time to issue a word of caution. There needs to be a balance between flats and detached and terraced houses," says the federation's Pierre Williams.

"It is a colossal shift which is likely to have profound effects on the way we are going to live in the future, on the economy and society."

Meal-for-one society

Despite the warnings it seems that the continued shortage of housing in the UK - identified by economists as the main reason for soaring prices - will continue to create pressure for new flats.

Population growth and the rise of the meal-for-one society, in which more and more people live by themselves, is expected to add to the demand.

The British House Builders Federation itself says the UK needs 220,000 to 230,000 new homes a year, but only about 170,000 are being built.

And as Ian Simpson says: "If everyone lived in their semi in suburbia there would not be any green space anywhere."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

These kind of property developments are what is needed in this country. Too many people on too small an island has pushed up the property prices far enough. When these sky-scrapers become the norm, not the exception, they will then have a more affordable price for first-time buyers. Build, build, build!
Ryan, UK

In Scotland, like continental Europe, people have been living in flats for centruies. I live in one myself built about 100 years ago. They are extremely sensible for towns because they keep the city compact, and the higher densities allow people to walk to shops, work and places of entertainment. High rise blocks might spoil an historic city like Bath or Edinburgh but for many places they would be ideal. If I lived in London I would much rather live in a well maintained high-rise block near the city centre and other facilities than some distant suburb.
Martin, Scotland

Having lived in Seoul and Taipei and numerous trips through Asia, I must say that I do like the skyscrapers here. The Asian scrapers are certainly more creatively designed than the Northern American ones that were generally built previously. Here they dominate the cities, and worthily so, but to place such buildings in the same skyline as St Pauls and the Houses of Parliament would be a huge mistake. I'm sure that we can survive without the extra office space. Kuala Lumpur has way too much.
Jono, Taiwan

More flats in urban areas are a good start, but green belt space should also be used to make room for affordable housing. Everyone knows we need more houses, but no one wants them in their area and the situation just keeps getting worse. The government should take control of this situation (do their job!!)and come up with sensible plans to solve a big problem.
Jason, Cambs, UK

Fantastic! I'd rather we built upwards rather than building on more countryside.
Duncan, Oxford

It is about time for people in the UK to start considering apartment buildings as a serious proposition. It is inexcusable that in a country with so little available land everyone still insists in having a traditional house¿ I welcome apartment buildings with open arms.
Guillermo Power, UK

I am surprised that the article did not mention the mother all succesful high rise living in the UK, the Barbican Estate in the City of London. It set a strong precedent for how a successful high rise community could be created from scratch, and included a very large number of low-income housing units, which remain affordable to this day. The price inflation of the flats in Manchester and Birmingham - at least as much as central London - is astonishing. These prices are for the wealthy only; the average middle-Englander could never front up that kind of cash.
Richard Burniston , London, UK

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