Second staircases mandated in new London high-rises

London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced that all new London buildings over 30 metres will be required to have a second staircase.

It follows the government’s recent consultation on amendments to Approved Document B of the Building Regulations. Published on 23 December 2023, the consultation proposes making second staircases in buildings over 30 metres in England a mandatory requirement.

Now the mayor has made the government proposal mandatory for all new buildings in London that fit that description “with immediate effect”.

This means that all new planning applications for buildings over 30 metres will need to adhere to the new building safety measure before going to the Greater London Authority (GLA) planning department for Stage 2 approval and sign-off.

While the move could require the redesign of numerous new planning applications, the GLA adds that those that were signed off prior to 23 December 2023 and were eligible for funding would remain eligible.

In a statement, GLA said: “The Mayor has consistently expressed concerns that the fire safety requirements in the national Building Regulations are not fit for purpose, so the proposed strengthened requirements and clear direction at the national level are strongly supported.

This Government consultation envisages a very short transition period with new developments being encouraged to prepare for this change now.

In light of this we are clear that, with immediate effect, all planning applications which involve residential buildings over 30m in height will need to be designed to provide two staircases before they are referred to us at Stage 2 for the Mayor’s decision.”

We recognise that the earlier statement by the National Fire Chiefs Council referenced over 18m but, to be clear, our requirement for two staircases applies to residential buildings over 30m in line with the national position.”

Notably, the NFCC called on the government to introduce a requirement for second staircases in buildings over 18 metres in height while RIBA has been calling for a secondary means of escape for all high-rise buildings since 2018.

The GLA’s planning team is working with the boroughs to progress schemes which are currently in the pipeline to ensure they include two staircases where necessary before any Stage 2 referral.

We are all working hard to look at feasible options to secure this and try to meet key timescales, particularly given the impact planning delays may have on affordable housing grant funding,” the GLA added.

According to Inside Housing, a spokesperson for Clarion Housing Group said: “We are engaging with the government’s consultation on second staircases, which has our full support. We are currently reviewing each relevant project to identify what amends, if any, are needed and how these can be implemented. We will redesign any projects which have yet to start and will seek fresh approval for their plans as necessary.

There needs to be greater clarity around the requirements of any forthcoming legislation as at present the consultation is ambiguous and could lead to significant delays to a number of projects in our programme.

We are reviewing the implications on any projects that have started on site under the current published building regulations.”

An architect for Make Architects, Simon Robins, told Architects’ Journal: “Legislation makes a real difference to progress meaningful change and we’re strongly behind this mandate for dual stairs, particularly in tall residential buildings. Of course, there are additional options developers could consider to further advance design and safety in this sector which shouldn’t be precluded just because of this mandate.”

However, Mary-Anne Bowring, Group MD at Ringley Group, noted some considerable concerns: “There are huge sticking points that need to be resolved. Developers in the middle of the planning process will be seething at the prospect of going back to square one, and the implications of that will be felt in the supply of new homes in the midst of a housing crisis. Many will no doubt look to reduce their affordable housing contributions as a means of making schemes viable to offset the cost of introducing a secondary staircase.

There is also a real risk that other fundamental safety measures like sprinkler systems, fire doors, and equipment maintenance might take a back seat if the building of a second staircase means developers start taking their eye off the detail ball. These are real risks the GLA must address quickly but thoroughly.”

Notably, the planning application for a 52-storey tower block by Anglo-Irish developer Ballymore was pulled in January 2022 after the London Fire Brigade (LFB) raised concerns over the lack of a second means of escape. A spokesperson for the LFB told The Guardian: In buildings with a single escape route, we would expect the developer to have their own fire engineers provide a full review to show the resilience in the event of a fire, and this does not appear to have been carried out.”