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Birmingham’s towering ambitions

Copper Consultancy

Copper Consultancy’s Senior Account Manager, Fiona Woolston, analyses the surge in planning approvals and construction of increasingly taller buildings across Birmingham and what this reveals about the city’s ambitions and confidence.

Throughout history, prominent cities have demonstrated their importance and global status through infrastructure and in particular by building bigger and taller. From New York’s Empire State Building in the 1930s, to London’s eclectic array of towers, including The Shard and the aptly nicknamed Gherkin, to Dubai’s colossal 163-storey Burj Khalifa, statement buildings are a key PR tool for cities that want to make their mark.

Over the decades, Birmingham has maintained a conservative approach towards the approval of tall buildings. This was partly due to the fact that Birmingham is located on a sandstone ridge, and therefore an extensive and time consuming consultation process with Birmingham International Airport and the Civil Aviation Authority, was required for proposed high-rises over 175 metres. As a result, most developers steered clear of such buildings, and when tall buildings were proposed, most were rejected. 

Although Birmingham has some notable high-rises, including the BT Tower and the Rotunda, the city’s skyline has not changed significantly for some time. However, in recent years, there has been renewed vigour within the city, due to the Commonwealth Games, and the future opening of the HS2 Curzon Street Station. This mentality has been reflected by a surge in progressively taller high-rise planning applications to the city council. Since writing, there have been over 15 projects either in planning or in construction that surpass 25 storeys. With approval rates steadily increasing, developers are competing to reach ever-greater heights.

In this race to the skies, there are some key players including Taylor Grange Developments, Moda Living and Regal Property Group. Birmingham’s Glancy Nicholls Architects (GNA) are designing many of these striking buildings, and one of their key partners is Court Collaboration. The duo saw their £100 million, 51-storey One One Eastside project approved in late April, and have now submitted plans for a £125 million, 48-storey scheme in Digbeth’s Deritend opposite the Custard Factory.

We spoke to GNA’s Director, Adam McPartland, about these recent schemes:

‘The continuing trend toward building tall shows no signs of dissipating as demand on urban areas increases. Birmingham is at the forefront of this drive benefiting from a young diverse population and a regenerating urban environment. Birmingham absolutely demonstrates a confidence in its ambition to propose significant tall buildings that are utilising advances in engineering and construction technology in order to afford the city a series of unique high-rise proposals.

Glancy Nicholls Architects have a wealth of experience in the design and delivery of tall buildings. Demonstrated through our recent approvals on two of the tallest regional buildings and the UK's first 'super slender' skyscraper; Birmingham's ambition is to continue to evolve and grow. Our future work continues to align with Birmingham's aim for low carbon high rise proposals and delivering bespoke architecture that celebrates our vibrant city.’

As well as echoing the city’s revitalised energy, high-rises are practical in a city centre where limited square feet needs to be used to its maximum potential. But by their nature, towers are visible and attract greater public and media attention than average buildings. If not managed correctly, such exposure can lead to significant reputational risks, even when planning is approved.

Many of the city’s recent planning proposals have faced commonly recurring criticisms on their level of affordable housing and lack of car parking. But most striking is the scrutiny that tall buildings come under by heritage organisations and enthusiasts. A tower in isolation can be perceived as inappropriate and unrefined when located near historical assets, and in Birmingham, there are nearly 1,500 Statutory Listed buildings.

At Copper, we champion the value of stakeholder and community involvement at every stage of a development. Modern, tall buildings can struggle to demonstrate their role in a city’s identity and culture when pitted directly against neighbouring, and often beloved, historical sites. Therefore, a high-rise must be integrated into a city’s evolving story, rather than being seen as cementing over it. By bringing the public on the development journey, a tall building can in part become theirs, rather than being something that is being imposed on them. 

This proactive interaction gives developers the opportunity to display how high-rises will support Birmingham’s social, cultural and economic prosperity. It also enables them to learn from surrounding communities what they value and have pride in about their city, and how this could be championed as part of the development. Digbeth, for example, has a nationally significant manufacturing history, is renowned today for its music and art venues and award-winning street food, and is home to the city’s Irish and gay communities; not to mention being popularised by the BBC’s Peaky Blinders.

Developments in such areas have a fantastic opportunity to capitalise on and celebrate Birmingham’s unique heritage. This could be achieved through the building’s design and future functions, or through social investment in the surrounding community. Generating proactive dialogue with stakeholders and communities right from the start is vital to ensure that when impactful construction begins, the future benefits are understood to minimise reputational risk.

If you want to find out more about how Copper can generate social advocacy for your high-rise schemes, please contact Fiona.woolston@copperconsultancy.com.

Image courtesy of Glancy Nicholls Architects