Another step change: the latest on second staircases and building safety

Following a recent government announcement, second staircases in high-rises are back in the spotlight. Michelle Essen and Kate Hanson explain what’s new.

Second staircases

Late last year, the government ran a consultation for 12 weeks, between December 2022 and March 2023, about its plans to mandate a second staircase in new residential buildings in England that are more than 30m high (approximately 10 storeys).

Following that consultation, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing, and communities, Michael Gove, published a statement in July 2023 which confirmed that the government intended to require second staircases in new residential buildings in England, but that the relevant building height would be 18m (approximately seven storeys), rather than the 30m consulted on.

A change in pace

Gove issued a further statement to Parliament on 24 October 2023, providing a building safety update that included proposals for a second staircase in all new residential buildings over 18m – which he described as a “reasonable threshold”.

Providing much-needed clarification for the industry, Gove also confirmed the transitional period for this change. Developers will have 30 months to take on board the new building regulation changes to Approved Document B requiring all new residential buildings above 18m to have a second staircase.

The 30-month transitional period will begin once the government publishes and confirms the changes to Approved Document B. We still await the timescales for this to happen but, even so, this nearly three-year period is likely to be longer than many people in the industry were anticipating.  

In transition

Before and during the transition period, developers will need to consider where they are within the design phase process and how they want to proceed.

From Gove’s latest statement, it appears they can choose to continue to design and obtain approval for one staircase, or alternatively decide to follow the new guidance and design with two staircases.

Once the transitional period has started, any projects which have already been approved under the old regulations will have 18 months to get the construction underway “in earnest”. While “in earnest” is undefined, Gove’s statement goes on to say “sufficient progress, for this purpose, will match the definition set out in the Building (Higher-Risk Buildings Procedures) (England) Regulations 2023, and will therefore be when the pouring of concrete for either the permanent placement of trench, pad or raft foundations or for the permanent placement of piling has started”.

This move will allow the approved projects with one staircase to go ahead without any delay “if they choose”.

Once the transitional period has ended, all new applications for approval will require a second staircase to those buildings higher than 18m.

Next steps?

The government expects “lenders, managing agents, insurers, and others to behave accordingly, and not to impose onerous additional requirements, hurdles or criteria on single-staircase buildings in lending, pricing, management or any other respect”. They have also stated that buildings with only one staircase are not “inherently unsafe”. This is because higher-risk buildings are now under greater scrutiny under new building control processes, such as the new Gateway regime as implemented by the Building Safety Act 2022, and subsequent legislation which came into force on 1 October 2023.

It remains to be seen how stakeholders in the industry and residents react.

In the meantime, we are expecting further updates from the government on the design detail that will be added to Approved Document B and the timescales for the transitional period to start.

Michelle Essen is legal director and Kate Hanson is a paralegal at Womble Bond Dickinson.

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