Second staircase regulations - changes and uncertainty in the affordable housing sector
What is the second staircase rule?
Following the Grenfell tragedy, the Government unveiled a consultation in December 2020 on introducing new rules to require two staircases in high-rise residential buildings exceeding 30m in height, approximately ten storeys. This was considered because a minimum of two protected staircases provides additional escape routes for residents and additional access routes for firefighters in the event of a fire and would close the slightly odd gap between the rules for commercial buildings, which already need a second staircase if over 11m tall, and residential buildings, which do not. It would also bring England and Wales into line with virtually every other comparable country. The consultation closed in March 2023, and we await the final proposals. However, this rule was implemented with immediate effect in London by the Mayor of London.
What will be the impact on the affordable housing sector?
The introduction of the second staircase rule has been widely anticipated, and the sector has worked hard to adapt current plans to it, but there are some justifiable concerns around how it will work practically. Several major regeneration schemes we are acting on have been put on hold immediately until developers have re-designed schemes to factor in a second staircase, and there are reports that this rule could delay up to 125,000 planned homes in London alone, with over 200 schemes delayed.
Across the sector, there are several key concerns:
- Uncertainty with schemes currently being designed or going through planning. The technical requirements for a second staircase remain unconfirmed, e.g., must it be internal, or could it be external? Must it be above a certain distance from the first stairwell? Is it for day-to-day use, or emergency use only?
- lettable floor space being reduced to accommodate an extra staircase. One estimate puts the loss of residential floorspace at around 6%, with a knock-on effect on unit numbers and hence rent and sales levels;
- additional cost, both of redesign and implementation, and possible impact on the affordability of other safety systems, such as sprinklers;
- whether housing numbers and targets can be met and delivered in timeframes set within development agreements, grant programmes, and RPs' own development programmes, at a time when funding is already under pressure with retrofit costs.
Schemes in the process of being developed may be completed as they stand, but the Government does not want to permit development schemes to get off the ground ahead of the new requirements coming into effect.
Some industry groups are calling for more than what has been introduced by the Government. The Royal Institute of British Architects feels that the appropriate two staircase threshold for new residential buildings should be 18m as opposed to 30m. This would align with Scotland, and also the wider Building Safety Act reforms. These industry groups have also suggested that the Government require existing buildings over 18m without two staircases to compensate with evacuation lifts, sprinklers and centrally addressable fire alarm systems.
What impact has this had on GLA/grant funded schemes?
A large number of affordable housing schemes are grant funded and will need to meet grant funding criteria. In terms of housing development in London, as mentioned above, RPs will now have to factor in the second staircase rule to ensure they are eligible for grant funding, as the GLA announced, with immediate effect, that all planning applications for residential buildings over 30 metres must include at least two staircases to be considered by the Mayor of London for final approval. However, buildings with only one staircase approved before 23 December 2022 are still eligible for GLA affordable housing grants.
Do the new regulations apply to London only or other regions around the UK?
The second staircase rule has come into immediate effect in London but has not currently been implemented in other parts of the country. However, it is surely only a matter of time for the rest of England.