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Fire Safety Consultation: What’s behind Gove’s rhetoric?

Fire Safety Consultation: What’s behind Gove’s rhetoric?

Josh Hymer & Jonathan Hoban 08 Aug 2023
The Housing Secretary, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, announced in his Long-term plan for housing speech on the 24th July 2023, the Government’s intention to mandate second staircases in new residential[1] buildings above 18 metres in height - not the 30 metre height threshold recommendation that had been consulted on. He did not expressly refer to the Government’s consultation on Approved Document B of the Building Regulations (which ran from 23 December 2022 to 17 March 2023 and we previously discussed here[2]); however, his speech appears to provide the Government’s view on its outcome. Whilst certainty on the consultation outcome was expected this year, the Mr Gove’s comment is likely to have left some in the industry wrong footed, given that:  The Consultation document[3] (paragraph 56) recommended the height threshold should be 30 metres (notwithstanding the National Fire Chiefs Council 18m recommendation at the time[4]) - “30 metres is an accepted threshold for increased safety measures such as increased fire resistance provisions and marks a recognised trigger representing an increase in the level of risks in buildings overall. We therefore propose to introduce a new trigger in Approved Document B making provisions such that new residential buildings more than 30 metres are provided with a second staircase.”  On 14 February 2023, the Mayor of London mandated that all residential buildings over 30 metres must have two staircases - “To be clear, our requirement for two staircases applies to residential buildings over 30m in line with the national position”. The Mayor’s 17 March 23 consultation response did qualify that his view on a 18m or 30m threshold was dependent on the publication of findings of any commissioned research[5] which has informed the proposal in the consultation.  In our experience, many Local Planning Authorities have been quoting this ‘national position’ when justifying amendments to schemes to accommodate second staircases in residential buildings over 30m tall in their Committee Reports.  The Government has not clarified what has brought on this change in position; however, we suspect it is likely to be in response to the joint letter (dated 22 March 2023) from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Chartered Institute of Buildings (CIOB), Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), Disability Rights UK, Housing LIN, Inclusion London and Leaseholder Disability Action Group to the Secretary of State on this matter (see here), the London Fire Brigade’s 17 March 2023 consultation response (see here) and that the 18m height threshold is already the position in Scotland. To put this into perspective, 18m building height is broadly equivalent of 6 residential storeys given how height is defined within the current Building Regulations[6]. For any planning proposals above the proposed 18m height threshold, whether at pre-application, planning application stage or approved but not yet implemented, this speech is a very strong indication that these schemes will need to be amended to include a second staircase. Developers who have already embarked on amending housing schemes to accommodate second staircases in buildings above 30m, are also now likely to face the additional challenge of further scheme amendments for any other residential blocks above the 18m height threshold. In London, we await confirmation from the Mayor of London on his position – i.e. will the GLA now be taking live referable schemes which include buildings over 18m and only one staircase to Stage 1 or Stage 2 reviews? The most likely scenario is that the Mayor accepts Gove’s speech as the new ‘national position’. For those planning approved schemes where development has commenced and are under construction, it is encouraging that DLUHC is to work with industry and regulators over the summer to ensure transitional arrangements to secure “the viability of projects which are already underway, avoiding delays where there are other more appropriate mitigations”[7]. However, no further detail is provided on what these appropriate mitigations will entail. As we have found over the past six months, amending schemes with 30m+ residential buildings to accommodate a second staircase that have already reached a design freeze at Planning stage is challenging, from design, planning and viability perspectives. In practice, we have found that, to accommodate the second staircase, there has typically been a loss of net saleable or lettable floorspace. Usually, this leaves developers with four main options: (1) going taller, (2) going wider (typically by changing inset to protruding balconies), (3) increasing the proportion of smaller homes in the housing mix and/or (4) reopening the overall affordable housing provision and tenure split proposed and thus viability. For schemes that have been approved but not yet been implemented, there is also a layer of procedural complexity, over whether the proposed changes amount to a non-material or material change and, therefore, whether the changes can be agreed through a s96a or s73 application or whether a fresh planning application is needed. In most cases, we advise engaging with the relevant Local Planning Authority to discuss both the scheme revisions and the procedural route ahead of making any formal application submission. The steps being taken to improve fire safety are very important and it is comforting that the Government has listened to and responded appropriately to expert advice on this topic. However, the moving of goalposts between different height thresholds is difficult to plan for. There is nonetheless improved clarity now that the threshold will be 18m, providing greater certainty for those working in the industry going forward. The repercussions for those schemes in transitionary arrangements in the planning process will be another challenge to address in the next few months, ahead of the Government’s regulatory confirmation through the approval of the Building Regulations Document B due later this year.   [1] ‘Residential’ is not defined within the consultation document albeit para 47 does imply this is aimed at ‘blocks of flats’ (i.e. residential being C3 use). It is therefore unclear if this threshold would apply to sui generis uses such as Purpose Built Student Accommodation or Co-Living or C2 uses such as a Care Home, although logically it is expected to apply to all new ‘homes’. [2] Jonathan Hoban previously discussed with Planning Resource in January 2023. [3] Sprinklers in care homes, removal of national classes, and staircases in residential buildings (published 23 December 2022)- [4] https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/News/nfcc-calls-for-new-high-rise-residential-buildings-to-have-more-than-one-fire-escape-staircase (14 December 2022) [5] We understand these have not been published to date. [6] For guidance on measuring ‘Height’ please refer to Approved Document B of the Building Regulations (2019 edition incorporating 2020 and 2022 amendments)- Appendix A Key Terms, Appendix D Diagram D4 and Appendix D Diagram D6 - i.e. “Height of top storey measured from upper floor surface of top floor to ground level on lowest side of building”. [7] https://www.michaelgove.com/news/long-term-plan-housing

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