Surprise move to tighten fire safety rules to delay more jobs as clients struggle to ensure viability

Michael Gove’s decision to lower the proposed threshold for second staircases in new residential blocks will stall more schemes and could lead to redundancies, industry experts have warned.

The housing secretary surprised the built environment sector yesterday by revealing the government is now intending to lower the requirement for additional stair cores in buildings from the 30m proposed last year to 18m.

Gove’s Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said it was “confirming the intention” to mandate the fire safety measure at the new lower height despite giving no forewarning to the sector, or even to its own consultants.

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Secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove

The move is now expected to delay schemes above 18m as clients are forced back to the drawing board to ensure viability, worsening the disruption which has hit the housing sector since the 30m threshold was announced in December.

The higher threshold, which was brought in with immediate effect in London by the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan in February, has resulted in major housebuilders including Peabody and Berkeley putting large numbers of schemes on hold so second staircases can be added.

HTA Design managing partner Simon Bayliss said Gove’s decision, which comes at the height of summer when many staff are on holiday, has been done “seemingly almost to maximise disruption”.

“It’s massive,” he said of the move, adding: “There’s very little in London that goes below 18m somewhere in the project because of the pressures on viability.”

And PRP partner Andrew Mellor said the lack of warning provided by Gove “could potentially lead to more people not having work to do in design and construction companies and housing developers”.

He said: “Some projects over 30m have stalled. I think we’re now going to see projects between 18 and 30 stalled because they’ll have to revisit, if they have not included two stairs.

“It is stopping the provision of housing projects moving forward. People have been made redundant because of the stalling process, both in consultants and contracts and organisations.”

He warned there is now a “very difficult period” coming for the housing industry for the next two or three months as clients work out how to respond to the change.

Gove has also been criticised for the lack of regulatory clarity provided in the announcement, despite claiming it “responds to the call from the sector for coherence and certainty”.

No impact assessment has been provided with the move to 18m and no further details on the technical requirements of designing second staircases, including whether firefighting lifts or evacuation lobbies will be included in the mandate.

DLUHC is also yet to outline how the policy will align with the introduction of new building safety regulations expected at the beginning of October

“The ideal situation would be that everything would align together, so we can respond as an industry to the Building Safety Act and second stairs,” Mellor said.

Bayliss said the lower threshold could lead to higher towers as developers seek to maximise floorspace with second stair cores.

He also said it could result in more demolitions if clients become reluctant to refurbish existing buildings which only have single stairs, a trend which would run counter to Gove’s recent decision to reject Marks & Spencer’s plans to rebuild it Oxford Street store.

“If you’re refurbishing a building, you’re gonna say, ‘well, I don’t want to end up with a white elephant, or I don’t want the residents to pick up on the fact that it’s only got one staircase, and it’s above 18m.

“It’s become more complicated, because people are now much more alert to the implications of the fact that there are regulations and that they’re changing. Lack of regulatory uncertainty is a massive problem.”

Bayliss added: “I’ve never known a more difficult time, even in the last 20 years… there’s nothing’s moving forward with certainty or any real pace.”

RIBA, which has campaigned for the threshold to be set at 18m, called the move a “huge win” for fire safety standards.

The institute’s president Simon Allford said: “This is a significant moment. Over six years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is hugely positive and reassuring to see the government listening to the united call of experts on fire safety, bringing greater coherence and certainty for industry.  

”Mandating second staircases in new homes over 18 metres is a vital step towards a safer built environment for all. We are pleased to have played our part in this.”