Developer says fire safety rules will put high rise schemes awaiting planning “back to square one”

Berkeley has said it will no longer focus on tower schemes and build more low-rise developments in future if the government’s proposed ban on single staircases in blocks above 30m goes ahead.

Plans for towers which require a second staircase will be “briefed out” in favour of lower buildings with a larger footprint, the developer’s divisional managing director Brian McKenzie told Building. 

The rules are already in place in London after the mayor Sadiq Khan decided last month to apply them with immediate effect and they are expected to come into force across the UK as soon as October.

Squire Paddington 2

Berkeley’s 556-home Paddington Green police station development, which includes a 39-storey tower, is currently awaiting a decision from Sadiq Khan

It means that all planning applications in the capital for new buildings above 30m must now have second staircases before going to the Greater London Authority (GLA) for final sign off.

McKenzie said the change is a “remarkable challenge for everybody” that has put the developer’s high rise schemes currently going through planning and pre-application stages “back to square one”.

“It’s very much a disruption because everything we’ve developed didn’t have a second staircase and in some scenarios it’s difficult to actually do it retrospectively, so we’re back to square one trying to understand what it is that we can feasibly do,” he said.

The shake-up could also lead to gridlock in planning departments as London developers scramble to renegotiate existing plans which had already been established with local authorities before the rule change, McKenzie added.

See also>> What the second staircase rule would mean for high-rise blocks

“It’s more just the time that it’s going to take because it’s not unique to us, it’s everyone across London. There’s a scarce resource in terms of the planning authority’s capacity,” he said.

Berkeley’s response to the single staircase ban is likely to involve focusing on buildings with cores that can be linked, reducing the amount of floorspace which is lost on each storey when adding an additional staircase.

But that will require developments with greater coverage, McKenzie said, or tall buildings which are much wider, a change which he warned would make it much harder to design schemes which are aesthetically pleasing.

He also said it could result in reductions in the amount of open space and public realm in developments as developers seek to compensate on lost floorspace .

“First and foremost [Berkeley] try and create as much amenity for the public as possible and that’s going to become more challenging, because if you can’t put a tower in to get the density up we’re then going to have to increase coverage,” he said.

The comments come after housing association Peabody warned of a “dramatic impact” to its development programme because of the single staircase ban, which it said could result in the delay of around 4,000 homes.

The organisation’s head of design Robin Palmer said 20 scheme with towers above 30m are likely to have to “go through a meaningful redesign”, some of which already have planning permission.

The government’s consultation paper on the ban, published in December, suggested there may be a “very short transitional period” for schemes and told developers to “prepare for this change now”. The consultation deadline is tomorrow.

The GLA said in February that Khan had “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”.

The authority added that it is “working hard to look at feasible options” to progress schemes currently in the pipeline which require a second staircase given the planning delays could have on affordable housing and grant funding.

In a statement, Build UK said: “There is growing consensus across the industry that 30 metres is an appropriate height, above which two staircases should be required. Following the recent change introduced by the Mayor of London, we are joining other industry bodies to call for a national decision to be made as soon as possible to enable projects to continue.”

Key industry bodies including the G15 group of London housing associations have backed the 30m rule, although others, including the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Fire Chiefs Council have called for the threshold to be strengthened to towers taller than 18m. The National Housing Federation has called for clarity as soon as possible.

RIBA said in 2018 in its response to Judith Hackitt’s review of building safety regulations conducted in the aftermath of the 2017 Grenfell fire that all high-rise buildings taller than 11m should have more than one means of escape.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities expects the requirement to cost the construction industry £1.6bn over the next 10 years with a 30m ban, £2.5bn if this is lowered to 18m and £3.7bn for 11m.