Just before Christmas 2022, the Government announced its plans to mandate a second staircase in residential buildings in England that are more than 30 metres in height. The Government consultation, which includes other proposals such as mandating sprinkler systems for new care homes, closes on 17 March 2023.
Only a few weeks later, the mayor of London issued a statement indicating that all planning applications for residential buildings that are over 30 metres must, with immediate effect, provide for two staircases before being submitted to the Greater London Authority (GLA) planning team for Stage 2 approval. However, other industry bodies are calling for a lower height threshold for provision of a second staircase.
We consider below how this issue has evolved, and the implications of the current proposals for developers/designers.
Dame Judith Hackitt's 2018 Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (the Hackitt Report) recommended an overhaul of the fire and building safety regulatory framework. This led to the passing of the Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA) and further rafts of related secondary legislation, which have now started to emerge (e.g. in respect of key building information and higher-risk buildings) and are expected to continue in 2023.
However, the Hackitt Report did not specifically address the provision of alternative means of escape in case of fire - i.e. the question as to whether a second staircase should be required in buildings over a certain height threshold.
Having only one staircase means that, in an evacuation, the same escape route used by residents is also used by firefighters carrying firefighting equipment – which may increase the risk of smoke ingress into an "escape" stairwell. The provision of a second staircase also gives residents an alternative means of escape in the event that one stairwell becomes filled with smoke.
In its response to the Hackitt Report, one of the four key recommendations of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Expert Group on Fire Safety was that there should be a requirement for at least two staircases in buildings over 11 metres.
More recently, in late 2022, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has also called for second staircases to be mandatory – this relates to buildings over 18 metres in height. The NFCC statement notes that in Scotland, buildings over 18 metres are required to have multiple staircases, and that countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia all have height limits.
However – until now – the position under current planning law in England remains that there is no maximum height for residential buildings with only one staircase. It appears, however, that this is now set to change.
The consultation published on 23 December 2022 proposes a number of amendments to Approved Document B of the Building Regulations.
Approved Document B sets out requirements for fire safety, including means of warning and escape, internal fire spread and compartmentation, external fire spread and access for fire and rescue equipment.
A number of amendments were made to Approved Document B in 2020 and 2022, including:
- Lowering the threshold for the requirement for sprinklers in new blocks of flats from 30 metres to 11 metres.
- Implementing the ban on combustible materials set out in the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 and extended in the Building (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 – which we reported on in which we reported on in our insight article last year on this subject).
- Making provision for secure information boxes in blocks of flats over 11 metres.
- Making a new recommendation for evacuation alert systems in blocks of flats over 18 metres.
The current proposal is to introduce a new provision in Approved Document B requiring a second staircase in new residential buildings above 30 metres.
The Consultation states that there will be a "very short" transition period so it is unclear what the time period will be to bring this into effect. In light of this, developers and designers should be preparing now and assessing what impact this could have on design, viability etc.
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