Analysis: Second-staircase shift sparks fresh uncertainty

In January 2022, Ballymore pulled plans for a residential skyscraper in Canary Wharf following a last-minute intervention by the London Fire Brigade (LFB). The organisation had expressed concerns about the 51-storey building’s sole escape route. A week later, plans for a similar single-staircase high-rise half a mile from the Grenfell Tower were adapted after LFB raised concerns.

This marked a new shift in the fire-safety discourse. Last December, the government launched a consultation on whether to mandate a second staircase in new residential buildings over 30 metres tall. London mayor Sadiq Khan went further, and in February required all new developments over 30 metres to provide two evacuation routes. Meanwhile, a number of housing schemes stalled due to the uncertainty.

In late July this year, housing secretary Michael Gove announced that the proposed threshold for second staircases would be lowered to 18 metres. He claimed this announcement provided “coherence and certainty”.

Some were delighted by Gove’s decision – the Royal Institution of British Architects hailed it as “a vital step towards a safer built environment for all”. However, many contractors had mixed emotions as they saw a new tranche of schemes that will need rethinking. 

For ongoing jobs, it’s not as simple as moving a few corridors around. Adding a second core in a fixed amount of space is likely to require changes in the size and number of apartments, the way they are arranged, and in the height of the building. Years of design work may have to be scrapped.

Wates chief executive Eoghan O’Lionaird said that if the number of saleable housing units have to be reduced, “some schemes will be viable and some schemes ultimately may not, because they’re available plot-size is fixed”.

Among housebuilders, one complaint is the lack of specificity on what constitutes an adequate second staircase. Trade body the Home Builders Federation (HBF) called for more clarity on the proposed requirements, and for transitional arrangements for large-scale developments. “Any delay or misstep by government will have a serious impact on housing supply and development viability and cause major issues for businesses,” it said in a statement.

A letter sent to Gove in mid-August by housing and construction coalition group Housing First said: “The lack of technical specifications means that those designing or constructing tall buildings are not being given clear instruction on exactly what they need to do. They are also unable to make sensible evidence-based decisions on risk for themselves, because they are not clear on the core purpose of the two staircases.”

The uncertainty faced by firms with large housebuilding portfolios adds another layer to a housing slowdown sparked by rising interest rates and material cost inflation.

On the brighter side, the damage may only be short-lived. O’Lionaird said: “I would anticipate as inflation abates… the overall cost of building gets to a point where it’s affordable again. I’d expect in the next 12-24 months schemes [hit by the new rule] will become viable again.”

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