‘We have to be clear that safety comes first,’ London’s deputy mayor for housing says as list of major schemes made unviable by rule grows

London’s deputy mayor for housing has said City Hall would “certainly” not rule out lowering the threshold for second staircases in residential blocks in the capital.

Tom Copley told Building Design’s sister publication Building that he accepted that the requirement for additional stair cores in buildings above 30m had affected the viability of some schemes, but “we have to be clear that safety comes first”.

Tom Copley GLA_9199

Tom Copley, left, with Sadiq Khan, right

The fire safety rule means all planning applications for buildings above 30m in London which have not been approved before 23 December 2022 must have second staircases before being signed off by the Greater London Authority.

The government is proposing to introduce the requirement across the UK, but London mayor Sadiq Khan announced in February that the rule would apply in the capital with immediate effect.

Khan’s decision has caused turmoil in the capital’s housing sector, with developers putting a string of major schemes on hold so they can be redesigned. 

But several industry bodies including the RIBA and the Chartered Institute of Housing have called for the threshold at which the rule kicks in to be lowered further to 18m.

Asked if he would consider lowering the threshold from 30m, Copley said: “We certainly wouldn’t rule that out.”

Speaking at the Urban Land Institute’s annual conference at the Barbican Centre, Copley said: “We definitely need to look at the evidence and there needs to be a lot more work done on the evidence between 18 and 30m, so we certainly wouldn’t be ruling out a lower threshold whilst welcoming the fact that the government is finally taking a view on this at all.

“I think we’ve been waiting far too long for the government to be looking at the whole issue of second staircases and the building regulations.”

In March, housing association Peabody said it was sending up to 20 tower schemes back to the drawing board to ensure they could be made viable with second staircases. Berkeley has also said it would focus on low-rise schemes in future, as the new rule made it harder to make high rise schemes viable.

Asked what he would say to developers who are now finding it harder to build affordable housing because of the requirement, Copley said: “I think viability of schemes is always going to be affected by a number of factors. I think that we have to be clear that safety comes first.”

“We want to be delivering as much affordable housing as possible, and what I think that makes the case for is more government investment into affordable housing. 

He added that he had been impressed by the speed with which developers who are part funded by City Hall’s affordable housing programme had redesigned schemes, saying that it “shows that was possible”.

Earlier in the talk, Copley admitted that the list of challenges currently faced by housebuilders was “as long as your arm”.

“I talk to people who have been involved in the sector for a very long time, much longer than I’ve been involved, and they say it’s almost the worst conditions that they can remember,” he said.

> Also read: What the second staircase rule would mean for high-rise blocks

> Also read: More clarity on second staircases is welcome, but constant change creates risk and uncertainty

Yesterday, work stopped on Wates Residential and Havering council’s 1,380-home regeneration of the Waterloo and Queen Street estate in Romford because of ongoing uncertainty about the government’s UK-wide proposals.

The joint venture said while the scheme is safe and meets current building safety laws, it had decided to pause the development “until we have a better understanding of what the new regulations will mean.”

Developer Landsec has submitted fresh designs for its 1,800-redevelopment of the O2 shopping centre in Camden to include a second staircase, while Westminster Council has ordered a redesign of its 1,100-home Church Street regeneration scheme in Marylebone.

The government itself has warned that the rule would affect viability, due to the reduced saleable or rentable area in buildings because of space taken up by the additional stair core. Its consultation paper said this is “likely to reduce the amount of affordable housing that can be provided by developers.”

The government has said staircases can reduce conflicts between firefighters entering a building and residents trying to escape, reduce the risk of smoke filling an escape stairwell and provide residents with an alternative means of escape should one stairwell fill up with smoke.