In December 2022, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (‘DLUHC’) published proposals to mandate second staircases in new residential buildings over 30m as part of ongoing efforts to make them safer places to live in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The National Fire Chiefs Council (‘NFCC’) had been advocating a dual-staircase approach for some time and published a Position Statement on December 2022 calling on the provision of more than one staircase in residential buildings over 18m. This call was echoed by Philip Glanville - the Mayor of Hackney -who published a letter urging the Government to apply the requirement to proposed buildings over 18m in schemes which have not yet been granted planning permission. RIBA and the RICS also supported the lower threshold.
Subsequently, the Secretary of State of the DLUHC announced on 24 July that the Government would be lowering this threshold to 18 metres. If adopted, the requirement will be implemented via an amendment to Approved Document B (Fire Safety) – the building regulation in England covering fire safety matters within and around buildings.
Existing buildings over 18m with a single stair core will not be affected by the proposals, but what of schemes that have recently been granted planning permission, or those currently in the planning process, or at an advanced stage in the pre-application process?
The original consultation document is clear that schemes under construction would be allowed to progress to completion, but the period “should not allow the opportunity for developments to get off the ground ahead of the new requirements coming into effect”.
For schemes that are not yet off the ground, the consultation proposes “a very short transition period before implementing the changes”, explicitly stating that “we would encourage all developments to prepare for this change now.”
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT HOUSING DELIVERY IN THE CAPITAL?
The original consultation acknowledges the significant cost of introducing a 30m+ height threshold, estimating a total present cost of £1.6 billion to businesses and society over a 10-year period. This would clearly be greater following the more recent announcement by the Secretary of State.
Indeed, many developers have paused schemes following the publication of the consultation proposals due to concerns around the impact on scheme viability until further clarity is provided.
The Mayor of London’s response to the original DLUHC consultation was published earlier in March, where he urged the Government to provide clarity and consistency by publishing guidance on design requirements and transitional arrangements as soon as possible, given the uncertainty within the sector.
Research by industry tracker Glenigan estimates that there are over 20,000 unbuilt homes and those currently in the planning system, which will need to be re-designed before they can be built out.
Some of these schemes were close to starting on-site when the DLUHC guidance was published back last year and subsequently put on hold.
Permitted schemes in London with a single staircase above 18m will need to be amended via a non-material amendment (s96a) or minor-material amendment (s73) application. In some cases, it may be that a new permission is required if it is not feasible to amend the permitted scheme.
This, combined with rising build costs and an increase in funding costs, is putting increasing pressure on housing delivery. Whilst mandating second staircases is a welcomed step towards ensuring a safer built environment, the Government must work rapidly to ensure that appropriate transitional arrangements are put in place so that the delivery of new high-quality housing, including much-needed affordable housing, is not jeopardised in order to create a more inclusive London where people can live and thrive.