In July, in a surprise move, Michael Gove announced that the two staircase requirement for new residential buildings is to be implemented but at a threshold of 18 metres, not 30 metres, bringing England more in line with Scotland, Hong Kong, some cities within the US, Iran and Kenya; with many parts of Europe including Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and Denmark still applying a higher threshold. 

The amendments to Approved Document B are also expected to include a distance and fire resisting separation between entry points to independent staircases, with interlocking staircases being prohibited for this purpose. 

The NFCC welcomed the change saying:

 “This decision marks another significant step in improving the safety of residents and firefighters in high-rise residential buildings across England.”

The NFCC also urged the Government to “take existing buildings into account and make it a requirement to install sprinklers and install or replace evacuation lifts during major refurbishments.”

This followed the DLUHC’s 12 weeks’ consultation launched at the end of 2022, seeking views on a two staircase rule for residential buildings above 30 metres. A proposal which the Greater London Authority rapidly jumped on the back of, with a rule change imposed back in February, resulting in a host of projects being put on hold. The National Fire Chiefs Council, Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Housing were among a number of organisations who advocated lowering the 30 metres threshold to 18 metres to improve safety both for residents and firefighters during an evacuation, a second staircase removing the risk of a single point of failure and buying critical time for firefighting activities alongside providing residents with multiple escape routes. 

The consultation indicated that the 10 year cost to business would be in the region of £2.5 billion in setting the threshold at 18 metres, up from £1.6 billion if they had gone with the 30 metres threshold. 

With the suggestion that there would be a short transition period for this change to be implemented, a number of existing schemes under 30 metres were expected to be forced into redesign, with figures suggesting over 20,000 new residential units would be caught by the rule change.  

In an update given by Michael Gove on 24 October 2023, the transitional period is now expected to be considerably longer than initially indicated. From the date when the Government publishes and confirms those changes to Approved Document B formally, Gove has announced that:

  • Developers are to have 30 months during which new building regulations applications can choose to conform to either the guidance as it exists today, or to the updated guidance requiring second staircases. 
  • When those 30 months have elapsed, all applications will need to conform to the new guidance. 
  • Any approved applications that do not follow the new guidance will have 18 months for construction to get underway in earnest, failing which, they will have to submit a new building control application, following the new guidance. 

This will mean that for some years to come, England will continue to see new 18metre + single staircase developments. 

 This raises some key questions: 

  • Will we see developers seeking to accelerate existing schemes to bring them within the 30 months’ transitional period?
  • How will developers accommodate the second staircase? Will it be to the detriment of some affordable housing? 
  • Will some schemes become unavailable due to increased costs and a reduction in saleable floor space?
  • For schemes which are in the offing already and are not required to accommodate the two staircase rule, will potential investors or insurers have less appetite for such schemes? 

We are tracking developments on our Building and Fire Safety Hub. If you have any queries about building safety, please do not hesitate to contact Melanie Hardingham or your usual Charles Russell Speechlys contact.