Government estimates fire safety measure will cost business £1.6bn over a decade

The government has unveiled plans to force developers to put second staircases in all new housing blocks above 30m, marking a significant victory by fire safety campaigners in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

In a consultation issued in the dying hours before the Christmas break, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities proposed introducing a mandate for a second staircase on new blocks above 30 metres – around 10 storeys – in order to “make buildings safer”.

This is despite the fact the measure, which has long been called for by the Riba and will cost the industry £1.6bn over a decade, was not recommended in the review of building safety regulations by Dame Judith Hackitt conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 blaze.

cuba_street_gallery_image_3 Ballymore

Ballymore’s Cuba Street scheme was last year redesigned with a second staircase after pressure over the issue

While the measure is currently only being consulted upon, the consultation document said the government was considering bringing in the measure with only a “very short” transition period that would allow existing permitted schemes to be completed, but “should not allow the opportunity for developments to get off the ground ahead of the new requirements coming into effect”.

Hence, the consultation said it was encouraging “all developments to prepare for this change now”.

Building safety minister Lee Rowley said: “There are undoubtedly lessons still to be learnt from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Department for Housing is committed to working with the sector and residents to explore what more needs to be done to make new homes across the country safe.

“This consultation is the next step in the department’s work to improve building regulations and make sure they are as clear and effective as possible.”

The consultation said that the requirement for a second staircase would not permit “scissor” or interlocking stairwells that would not protect against the spread of smoke from one stairwell to another. It would ensure an alternative stairwell is provided in the event the other gets filled with smoke, which is seen as a major driver for the requirement.

It said: “The department is concerned that some tall residential buildings are being designed with a single staircase without due consideration by the designers on the level of safety provided and the necessary resilience.”

As far back as 2018 the Riba said in its response to the Hackitt report that all high-rise buildings should have more than one means of escape – with the Riba at the time recommending a second stairwell be required in 11m buildings or higher. Just this summer the architects’ body criticised the government for confusion over the issue. In December the National Fire Chiefs Council called for all buildings above 18m in height to have the same requirement.

The department’s consultation said the ten-year cost to business would rise to £3.7bn if it had implemented the requirement at 11m-plus, or £2.5bn for 18m-plus.

The move comes after developer Ballymore last year pulled plans for a 52-storey tower in London’s Docklands and later redesigned it with a second stairwell following pressure from campaigners and the London Fire Brigade over the issue.

The same consultation also proposed a number of other significant changes to the system for fire safety regulation, proposing to mandate sprinkler systems in care homes at all heights, and to finally remove all references to the old British Standard national product classification system from building regulations – known as the BS476 series.

This is the system, which was long ago supposed to have been superseded by the European products regulation system but was never formally removed from the regulations. It contained the “class 0” rating, which caused much confusion in the approved documents. A Class 0 rating only refers to the surface of a product being of limited combustibility, while the internal composition of the product can remain flammable.

In addition, the consultation, which will run until March 17, is consulting on potential amendments to the wording of the key paragraphs in the Approved Documents guidance covering the make-up of external walls on high-rises – paragraphs 10.6 and 10.7.