Tall Buildings & Fire Safety

It’s hard to plan when policies are continually in a state of flux, when there is uncertainty as to where the controls lie – via the planning system or via separate legislation – and when there is the possibility of inconsistency as between the differing regimes.

Take fire safety in relation to buildings for instance.  The Government is proposing to tighten the Building Regulations – it published a consultation document on 23 December 2022 proposing various amendments to Approved Document B, which include recommending the inclusion of sprinklers in all new care homes, regardless of building height, as well as introducing a threshold whereby residential buildings above 30 metres in height should be designed and built with two staircases. A “very short” transition period is proposed:

59. The transition period will allow time for schemes to be completed but should not allow the opportunity for developments to get off the ground ahead of the new requirements coming into effect.

60. We would encourage all developments to prepare for this change now.”

The consultation runs until 17 March 2023.

Why is 30 metres proposed as the threshold?

56. 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.

57. There is no standard international approach to the provision of staircases within residential buildings of height. The approaches taken by other countries, varies greatly depending on other fire mitigation measures such as travel distances, provision of sprinklers, compartmentation, cavity barriers etc. Where other countries set a maximum height for the provision of single stairs, this ranges from 18m to 75m in height.”

This is all clear – or will be once the amended Approved Document B is published.

However, with operation of the planning system, and the inherent discretion given to decision makers within it, comes additional uncertainty.

My 3 July 2021 blog post Safety & Planning covered the requirements introduced by the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure and Section 62A Applications) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021, which introduced a requirement for a fire statement to be submitted with applications for planning permission for development involving a building (1) contains two or more dwellings or educational accommodation and (2) contains 7 or more storeys or is 18 metres or more in height and which required consultation with the Health and Safety Executive before the grant of planning permission involving a high-rise residential building in certain circumstances.

In practice, HSE’s responses to local planning authorities provide its substantive response, setting out any specific significant areas of concern arising from the proposal, as well as “supplementary information for the applicant” which is more advisory in nature.

Whilst it is of course open to a decision maker to take into account the advice of a statutory consultee but to determine, with appropriate reasoning, why it is appropriate not to follow the advice, in matters of human safety it would be a brave officer, committee of councillors or inspector who were to take that approach. What the HSE has to say is therefore extremely important. But it is also important to ensure that its requirements do not go beyond what is reasonably required.

Just because the HSE is satisfied gives no certainty that there will be no fire brigade objection. Whilst not statutory consultees, the relevant local fire brigade, for instance, in London, the London Fire Brigade, may also choose to make representations in relation to a proposal and the same considerations apply. Whilst they are a statutory consultee under the Building Regulations, by the time that a proposed development has planning permission it may of course be too late to build into the design the additional measures that are required so one can well understand why it is sensible for concerns to be expressed at this stage, although again, plainly, they should not go beyond what is reasonably required.

Neither the NPPF nor national planning practice guidance sets out the criteria to be applied. Although this has no Government policy endorsement, the National Fire Chiefs Council’s position is that the maximum height for buildings with a single staircase should be 18 metres, rather than 30 metres. Its Single Staircases Policy Position Statement (15 December 2022) says this:

NFCC believe, that 18 metres or has at least 7 storeys must become the threshold at which more than one staircase should be required in new residential buildings, and that this threshold should be kept under review alongside other situations addressing these issues, including evacuation management and lifts.”

Multiple protected staircases create more resilience to support evacuation and firefighting operations. The need for unambiguous guidance is particularly important given the clear problem with culture and competency identified across the design and construction industry since the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.

An 18 metre or has at least 7 storeys threshold would provide continuity of message and clarity across Government, aligning with definitions in the Building Safety Act as well as thresholds for certain provisions in the Fire Safety (England) Regulations and the Government’s ban on the use of combustible materials. This would also help to synchronise standards across the United Kingdom by aligning to rules in Scotland. While arguments exist for a range of thresholds, both higher and lower, 18 metres or has at least 7 storeys would bring the greatest harmonisation with the wider regulatory environment in the United Kingdom, and the greatest simplicity and certainty for industry at this time.”

 So is it to be 30 metres, as consulted upon by the Government, for the purposes of the operation in due course of the Building Regulations – or 18 metres, as advocated by the National Fire Chiefs Council?

Policy D12B of the Mayor of London’s London Plan 2021 goes further than the statutory requirement for a fire statement and requires a separate, more detailed, fire statement to be submitted with any application for planning permission for “major development proposals”. It must be prepared by someone who is “third-party independent and suitably-qualified” – “a qualified engineer with relevant experience in fire safety, such as a chartered engineer registered with the Engineering Council by the Institution of Fire Engineers, or suitably qualified and competent professional with the demonstrable experience to address the complexity of the design being proposed.” The statement must set out how the proposed development will function in terms of:

•             The building’s construction method and products and materials used

•             Means of escape for all building users and evacuation strategy

•             Passive and active fire safety measures

•             Access and facilities for the fire and rescue service

•             Site access for the fire and rescue service

•             Future development of the asset and the ‘Golden Thread’ of information

So two separate fire statements. Appeals have been dismissed where this has not been done (see eg here).

The Mayor’s draft London Plan Guidance on fire safety does not (yet at least) specify in guidance the height of buildings a second staircase is required, but, following the NFCC’s statement, I understand that the Mayor’s office has taken the position last week that, until it has had further discussions with the Government on the issue, it will not take schemes to the Mayor for stage 2 sign off where the proposals are for 18m+ high residential buildings with single staircase access.

Isn’t this area a classic illustration of how, even for the best of reasons (people’s lives), looking to the planning system to address matters which are the proper domain of other legislation is so often a recipe for delay and confusion, particularly where there is no specific national guidance on the issue? Don’t we need:

  1. Clear, robust standards
  2. Clarity as to which regime will set out and police compliance with those standards
  3. Clear signposting of any proposed changes to standards, with appropriate transitional arrangements?

….

In other news:

I hope plenty of people read my Town partner Clare Fielding’s blog post Still IL – if I draw a Venn diagram with a circle around those of you who are interested in the proposed Infrastructure Levy and a circle around those of you who are aficionados of the Smiths and if you are in the intersection between the circles, this is a must-read.

Thanks if you tuned into our clubhouse discussion last week on DLUHC’s 22 December announcements, where we went through the various proposed changes to the NPPF. Over 500 of you have listened so far. The link is here. However I think the best summary of the proposals that I have read so far is by Sam Stafford. His 50 Shades of Planning blog post, National Planning Policy Fudge (4 January 2023),  is well worth a read (and I’ve got to be nice to him as he is tidying up the clubhouse recording for subsequent release in his podcast series).

Simon Ricketts, 7 January 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Courtesy Mario La Pergola via Unsplash

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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