Fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire – new consultation announced on proposals for second staircases to be required in new high rise residential buildings in England and Wales
The Government has recently announced that it is considering changing building codes to require second staircases for new residential buildings taller than 30m in an effort, it says, to “build on fire safety measures introduced since the Grenfell Tower tragedy”. A twelve week consultation has been launched on its plans, which also includes mandated sprinkler systems in new-build care homes and requiring construction products to meet European Standards rather than the old national classifications.
Alarmingly, a recent article revealed that the UK has been revealed to be somewhat of an outlier in not already requiring second staircases under the building code. This is something that has been highlighted and heavily criticised by campaigners including from within the fire services since the Grenfell Tower fire. The article refers to a researcher who found on reviewing 30 countries’ building codes that the UK and South Korea are the only ones that do not include any such provision. Further, whilst our Government is only considering bringing in a requirement for new buildings that are taller than 30m (roughly equivalent to 10 storeys), the US and Ireland require second staircases for buildings less than half this height (4 storeys) and Canada’s requirement is just 2 storeys.
Public pressure and campaigning on this issue has had some success. Just last year at least four projects in London conceded to pressure and redeveloped their plans for single-staircase tall residential buildings to accommodate a second stairwell, including a new 51-storey tower in Canary Wharf and the redevelopment of a 60s estate in Camden.
Scotland now does require a second staircase for buildings over 18m and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) called just a week before this new consultation was announced for an equivalent requirement for the rest of the UK (along with other measures to improve safety such as the retrofitting of sprinklers – a proposal the Government has rejected for general needs housing for many years – and evacuation lifts). As the NFCC point out, despite the “stay-put” policy lived experience and data collected by fire and rescue services in recent years shows that most people will choose to evacuate in the event of a fire, particularly so since the Grenfell Tower fire, and it is essential that evacuation is an option should the circumstances require it.
We have heard from our clients who survived the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as in evidence given by other survivors and by fire service personnel at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, harrowing accounts of how the conditions in the single staircase at Grenfell Tower deteriorated as the fire spread. How the dense smoke and fierce heat put people off trying to leave. How it caused some who tried to get down through the smoke to collapse in the staircase. How it caused some to flee upwards instead of down to the exit. How the staircase became congested with residents, firefighters and heavy bulky firefighting equipment. We can only begin to imagine the horror and the impossible decisions those in the tower were forced to make on facing such conditions when they got to the stairwell. For many of those who survived, and the families and loved ones of those who were unable to escape, the potential difference a second staircase could have made on the night is yet another devastating “what if” that they are forced to live with every day.
Since these plans were announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the coverage within the construction press has focused on the potential cost implications of such a requirement. One article’s sub-heading reads: “Department estimates fire safety measure will cost business £1.6bn over a decade” whilst another is headlined: “Second-staircase proposal ‘could add cost and delay schemes’”.
Given the disappointing response and handling of the consultation into requiring Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs), a key recommendation from the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry aimed at protecting residents with disabilities, the outcome of this consultation is far from certain. We can but hope that the pledges made by Building Safety Minister Lee Rowley that “There are undoubtedly lessons still to be learnt from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Department for Housing is committed to working with the sector and residents to explore what more needs to be done to make new homes across the country safe” are not empty words and that people will be placed ahead of profit in an