New government guidance on second staircases

United Kingdom

The government has published its eagerly awaited amendments to the guidance in Approved Document B: Fire safety, Volume 1 – Dwellings and Volume 2 – Buildings other than dwellings, 2019 edition incorporating the 2020 and 2022 amendments.

The headline amendment for many is for flats to be served by more than one common staircase where the building has a top storey of 18m or more in height. Earlier government announcements had proposed the height threshold to be 30m but, following a consultation, the government has opted for the 18m threshold.

As key for many are the timetable and transitional arrangements.

Timetable and transitional arrangements

The amendments take effect on 30 September 2026 for use in England and the earlier guidance will continue to apply where a building notice or an initial notice has been given to, or a building control approval application with full plans made to, the relevant authority before 30 September 2026 (all in the context of the building regulations compliance process) and either the building work to which it relates:

  • has started and is sufficiently progressed before that day; or
  • is started and is sufficiently progressed within the period of 18 months beginning on that day. ie. before 30 March 2028.

For the purpose of these transitional arrangements, building work is to be regarded as “sufficiently progressed”:

  • where the building work consists of the construction of a building, when the pouring of concrete for the permanent placement of the trench, pad or raft foundations has started, or the permanent placement of piling has started; or
  • where the building work consists of work to an existing building, when that work has started; or
  • where the building work consists of a material change of use of a building, when work to effect that change of use has started.

Those who are familiar with the transitional arrangements applicable to the changes to the building control regime for higher risk buildings (“HRBs”) will recognise this description.

One apparent peculiarity of the transitional arrangements are their dependence on the giving of a building notice, initial notice or the making of a building control approval application with full plans. These methods of obtaining approval do not apply to HRBs, yet the 18m threshold set for second staircases for blocks of flats means this requirement can only ever apply to HRBs. On that basis, the transitional arrangements could never apply. It is assumed this is merely a drafting anomaly and that the transitional arrangements will apply to building control approval applications for HRB work. This may be confirmed in due course.

The amendments themselves

The amendments comprise a 13-page document which includes much technical guidance together with illustrative drawings.

In addition to the amendment for flats to be served by more than one common staircase where the building has a top storey of 18m or more in height, the amendments may also require flats to be served by more than one common staircase in buildings (regardless of height) in which flats are not separated from the common staircase by a protected lobby or common protected corridor and a maximum horizontal travel distance from flat entrance door to storey exit or stair lobby of 7.5m in one direction is exceeded. The amendments make it clear that, for these purposes, interlocked staircases should be considered as a single staircase.

Whilst the amendments relating to having more than one common staircase in blocks of flats may be attracting the most interest in the industry, there are also amendments which relate to evacuation lifts, fire doors and self-closing devices, ventilation and smoke control and the design of common staircases.

Whilst the amendments to the guidance do not require new buildings to have evacuation lifts, it includes building design provisions to support the use of evacuation lifts in blocks of flats. It states that where evacuation lifts are provided, these should be located within an evacuation shaft containing a protected stairway, evacuation lift and evacuation lift lobby and that an evacuation lift lobby should provide a refuge area for those waiting for the evacuation lift, have direct access to a protected stairway and not be directly accessible from any flat, maisonette, storage room or electrical equipment room.

Looking forwards

Many developers may welcome the transitional arrangements and look to take the benefit of them. Others may be wary of doing so: whether for reason of setting themselves the deadline for “sufficient progress” or for the market swinging rapidly in favour of the amended guidance and then having a new block of flats which is perceived as not safe enough.

It is possible that the regulator will make compliance with the amended guidelines a requirement for the granting of planning permission even before the amendments take effect thereby, in practice, taking the transitional arrangements off the table.

For those currently benefitting from the transitional protections available with respect to the new building safety regimes applicable to both higher-risk and non-higher risk buildings, care should be taken that a redesign, which may for example include a second staircase, does not cause the project to lose the benefit of the transitional protections.

References: Amendments to the Approved Documents - Approved Document B: Fire safety volumes 1 and 2 (publishing.service.gov.uk)