Ben Stonebridge, hgh Associate, reports from a recent Planning Futures event on new building safety rules.
A fundamental change in the approach to fire safety in new buildings has taken place over the past 12 months. The announcement in December 2022 that residential buildings 30m+ in height would require a second staircase caught many by surprise and resulted in numerous schemes being redesigned or shelved.
The desire to improve building safety is positive: amendments to the Building Regulations; the launch of HSE as a statutory consultee for fire safety on relevant planning applications; and a new Building Safety Regulator are, to name but a few, welcome changes brought in since the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
However, the latest Government announcement on 24th July to reduce the threshold for second staircases in new buildings to 18m+, was poorly timed, lacked accompanying guidance or information on transitional arrangements, and has caused concern across the industry.
A timely Planning Futures event on second staircases, on 7th September 2023, featured a panel that included representatives of the HSE, GLA, OPDC, RIBA, and the HBF. It was an interesting discussion with a several key concerns highlighted:
1 Lack of certainty
The overriding concern for both decision-makers and the wider industry is continued uncertainty. Clear guidance is needed to move projects forward, with transitional arrangements urgently provided to allow developers to plan accordingly. There is frustration about the lack of Government engagement with industry on the issue, with thousands of homes currently at risk of delay or cancellation.
2 Conflicting Interpretations
It is apparent that a range of interpretations of the guidance remain. The GLA has noted a lack of consensus on some issues between fire consultants, HSE, and the LFB. Developers have noted conflicting advice provided between the planning stage and the building control stage. There remains some doubt on whether the requirement will be for second staircases or for second staircores. This lack of clarity was demonstrated by conflicting views between the panellists on whether a green roof, or rooftop amenity space, is defined as a storey for the calculation of building height. Evidence that clear technical guidance is required.
Planners are required to make balanced decisions based upon the information in front of them. However, given the lack of detail and conflicting interpretations of guidance, there is a risk that decisions with potential risk-to-life implications are being made. Understandably, many planners are adopting an ultra-cautious approach.
4 Delays to Housebuilding
GLA advice, that single stair schemes of 18m+ will not be accepted at Stage 2, has significant impact on planning. The GLA estimates that there are over 70 affected applications (comprising 35,000 residential units) in its current caseload potentially held up by fire safety concerns. This will disproportionately affect London; the HSE has stated that over 60% of its casework is in Greater London, where buildings of 18m+ are exceedingly common due to space limitations and high land values. The resulting impact on housing delivery, in a region with an acute shortage of affordable housing, could be critical.
5 Beyond Planning and Development…
The requirement for two staircases in new buildings 18m+ in height implies that existing tall buildings with a single stair core are unsafe. The Government urgently needs to provide reassurance that existing buildings are safe. Until then, there is a risk of a dual market emerging in the residential sector, with homes within single stair buildings at risk of being considered ‘lower tier’ properties in terms of valuations, not to mention the emotional and mental impact on residents. A repeat of the cladding scandal, which is still affecting thousands of leaseholders, must be avoided.