Body says decision to reduce height of second staircase mandate to 18m risks “significantly reducing” housing supply

Michael Gove’s decision to reduce the height at which it requires new housing blocks to install a second staircase to 18 metres risks “significantly reducing” housing supply by piling extra costs and uncertainty on developers, according to a major industry body.

The Housing Forum has written to the housing secretary calling for urgent talks over the announcement, which came last month without any technical detail or transitional arrangements to allow developers, including housing associations, to plan for the changes.

The Housing Forum, which brings together architects, manufacturers, developers, housing associations and local authorities, said the decision coupled with the lack of further information was causing a build “hiatus” that had seen at least one of its members put plans for 38 blocks under review.


Housing secretary Michael Gove

Gove’s July U-turn, which followed lobbying from fire chiefs and the Riba, came despite a consultation from the government in December last year proposing to introduce a requirement for a second staircase for buildings of 30m or higher. That consultation had implied the department had made up its mind, stated there would be a short transition period, and urged the industry “to prepare for this change now.

The Housing Forum letter to Gove, sent yesterday, said it supported the government’s aim to see safe buildings but was very concerned that the department had not so far stated what the “core purpose” of the second staircase was to be – whether for escape of for firefighting access – had not set out any transitional arrangements to make clear which schemes will be covered by the mandate, and had not set out any technical requirements.

The letter said: “We are very concerned about the impact of these changes on the viability of projects for many of our members. Housebuilders – including social landlords - are being faced with the option of significantly reducing the number of new homes they provide and/or facing a significant cost increase to allow for an additional staircase.

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“One social landlord has told us the announcement of the 18m height limit has added an additional 38 blocks to their list of projects in the active design pipeline, which are now being reviewed.

“This could not be happening at a worse time for the housing and construction sector, where viability of housing and of firms in the housebuilding sector are strained to the point of breaking.”

The move to reduce the second staircase mandate to 18m has come despite evidence of a large impact on development already in London following the initial December consultation, and mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to bring the mandate into effect immediately in the capital. Developers including Peabody, Hill and Land Securities have all admitted to having put schemes on hold or into redesign due to the second staircase mandate, while Berkeley has said it could shift to low-rise building.

An analysis by LSH and Connells in May said up to 125,000 homes across 243 schemes could ultimately end up mothballed by the new rules.

Transitional arrangements setting out which schemes will be caught by the new requirements were urgently needed, yesterday’s Housing Forum letter said, in order “to prevent important homes and places being significantly delayed or, worse, made unviable.” The government should also say whether additional grant funding will be made available for social housing schemes where viability is impacted by the costs of second staircase.

The Forum letter said that the lack of technical requirements meant designers and developers had no guidance from which to draw up alternative plans, and the lack of even a “core purpose” for the second staircase meant it was impossible for their designers to use their own judgment to redesign schemes. “Those designing or constructing tall buildings […] are 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 letter states.

The Forum says that the department has not made clear basic information, such as whether the two staircases can be contained in the same single “core”, or must be separated, making it impossible for members to come up with their own design responses.

The industry concerns come despite the fact the move has been supported by the UK’s principal body for architect, the Riba. It described Gove’s July decision as a “huge win” for the organisation, which has campaigned for since the Grenfell tragedy for tighter legislation around second staircases, which exists in many other countries.

Announcing the move in July, Michael Gove said he was introducing the 18m threshold to provide “much-desired clarity to builders that 18m will be the threshold that we will introduce for new buildings requiring second staircases.”

He added that there will “of course” be transitional arrangements put in place “to make sure that there is no disruption to housing supply”, but did not say what the arrangements will be. The department said only that it would work with the industry and regulators over the summer to put the transitional arrangements together.