Housing association says it can’t commit to designs on towers across 20 schemes because of uncertainty over policy

Peabody has warned of a “dramatic impact” to its development programme as it cannot commit to designs of high-rise tower blocks without further clarity from the government on its proposed ban on single staircases.

The housing association said it has 20 schemes with towers over 30m in height that are due to start on site after October – the earliest date many expect the government’s proposed second staircases rule could be enforced.

Robin Palmer, head of design at Peabody, said these 20 schemes are likely to have to “go through a meaningful redesign” putting on hold its commitment to a design.

He said an estimated 4,000 homes would be affected in the short term based on an assumption of a 30m threshold and an October enforcement start date.

second staircases

A consultation on second staircases is due to end this Friday

“We are ultimately postponing commitment on those designs until we have greater information available,” he admitted.

Palmer warned there would be a “dramatic delay to its programme” and added: “The biggest negative impact is on our programme, because we are in this period of uncertainty and transition and I have to say I do think it could have been avoided, it could have been managed in a better way.”

He said some of the 20 schemes have planning permission but added it would be hard to determine if Peabody would have to submit fresh planning applications in every case until it knows the full requirements. He said there may be opportunities to redesign blocks “without changing the external envelope” and avoid needing a full fresh approval.

The government is proposing a 30m threshold for its ban on single staircases. But fire chiefs have previously called for an 18m threshold.

There is a lack of detail around the type of staircase that would be needed or whether extra lifts would also be required and the government’s consultation paper has suggested there may be a “very short transitional period” for schemes in development but this hasn’t been confirmed, nor has the length of any period.

Palmer said Peabody is progressing with six schemes above 30m, delivering 2,900 homes, that will start on site before October. Two of these include build-to-rent homes and will have a second staircase added to future-proof the developments for investment while four others will have single staircases. Palmer stressed that Peabody considers them safe.

He also said Peabody backs the principle of second staircases in high-rise blocks.

His comments come ahead of the deadline on Friday for responses to the government’s consultation paper.

Sector bodies this week called on the government to make a decision soon and provide clarity on its reasoning.

Victoria Moffett, head of building and fire safety programmes at the National Housing Federation, said the trade body backs the principle of introducing a second staircase.

She said: “It is crucial that any decision taken by the government on the height threshold for second staircases is supported by robust evidence, and that this is clearly laid out in order to reassure residents, lenders and insurers that any risks have been appropriately considered.

“Uncertainty over requirements for new buildings can cause delays to the delivery of new homes and lead to additional costs which may impact the viability of new housing developments. This effect will likely be greater the longer it takes for a decision to be reached.

The NHF is not advocating for a specific level of threshold.

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

Moffett added: “We encourage the government to make this decision as soon as possible, as housing associations will want to ensure new homes are built to new safety standards, requiring time and resource to redesign and plan buildings.”

Geeta Nanda, chief executive of Metropolitan Thames Valley and chair of the G15 group of housing associations, said the G15 group backs the proposed 30m threshold.

But she added: “Important questions remain about technical requirements and transitional periods for the implementation of these proposals, and further clarity and assurance is required.”

She said there is a risk in the longer term that the rule could impact on viability and lead to a reduction in affordable homes as a result.

The Chartered Institute of Housing last month backed an 18m threshold for second staircases, which would be more stringent than the 30m proposed by housing secretary Michael Gove.