As part of building safety measures following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government confirmed their intention on 24 July 2023 for all new residential buildings in England over 18 metres in height to have a second staircase, rather than the 30-metre threshold initially proposed in the consultation phase. London Mayor Sadiq Khan had previously mandated for second staircases in blocks above 30 metres with immediate effect from 10 February 2023, with the rules applying to any fresh planning application for residential schemes of more than roughly 10 storeys.
According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (“DLUHC“), the revision to the rules follows confirmation from expert bodies that they support the threshold. This was in light of statements made by the National Fire Chiefs Council (“NFCC“), which urged the government to go further with their proposals and mandate that residential buildings over 18m or seven storeys high should have more than one fire escape staircase. The rationale behind the second staircase is that this will “remove the risk of a single point of failure, buying critical time for firefighting activities and providing residents with multiple escape routes” according to Gavin Tomlinson of the NFCC. The Royal Institute of British Architects also echoed their support for the 18-metre threshold stating that this represented “best practice, improving safety for occupants, and harmonising standards with the wider regulatory environment”. The letter to the DLUHC was signed by eight industry organisations across the sector. This would also bring England into line with Scotland, where single-stair towers above 18 metres are banned.
Developers, however, are facing uncertainty over the second staircase rules and are having to rapidly revise plans for projects already in the pipeline. Peabody had said earlier in the year that they needed greater clarity on the application of single stairs for buildings over 30 metres. The move to lower the threshold nine months on has meant many developers are in limbo. Bell Philips had re-designed a 1,100-home scheme near Edgware Road following the fire safety rule changes. Plans will no doubt need to be revised again as the government has gone further than initially expected. Similarly, Wates had halted a London high-rise project over “continued regulatory uncertainty” around the requirement for two staircases on all new residential buildings.
In response, the DLUHC has said that they “will work rapidly with industry and regulators over the summer to redesign transactional arrangements with the aim of security for the viability of projects which are already underway, avoiding delays where there are other more appropriate mitigations”.
The DLUHC hopes that the greater clarity over the requirements will get building projects back on track. Critics have pointed to the fact that the proposals invalidate the principles of the “stay-put strategy” and instead encourages evacuation and that fire-fighting protocols will also need to change as a result.