Consultation on staircase safety post-Grenfell ‘sham if experts not listened to’

A coalition of architects, fire safety and disability rights organisations have said the legal height limit for second staircases must be lowered.

A call for change from experts on fire safety must be listened to, otherwise a Government consultation on staircases in tall buildings will be a “sham”, a leading architect has said.

Speaking ahead of the sixth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on Wednesday, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) described the blaze as “the most shocking event imaginable” and a reminder of “what happens when things are not done properly”.

The Government is currently considering responses to a consultation proposing new rules to mandate second staircases in new residential buildings over 30 metres (approximately 10 storeys).

But a coalition of architects, fire safety and disability rights organisations have said the legal height limit must be lowered, arguing that second staircases should be compulsory for new tower blocks which are 18 metres high (approximately six storeys).

Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey building, had a single stairwell.

Jack Pringle, RIBA past-president and current chair of its board of trustees, said he accepted that the balance between fire safety, practicality and affordability is “not easy”, but said 18 metres is the experts’ conclusion.

He told the PA news agency: “We’ve decided where we think the balance lies and we’re lobbying very strongly for that. And we hope that our view holds sway on the day, but it’s a process that we have to go through.”

Asked for his reaction if the Government does not change to 18 metres, Mr Pringle said: “If something goes to consultation then they’ve got to listen to the replies to the consultation. Otherwise it’s a sham.

“And with the lobby that is lined up for 18 metres, I think the Government needs to listen to the experts in the field which we’ve pulled together for the 18 metres. So I would be very disappointed if they don’t respond and 18 metres is not brought in as the limit.”

He said he was “particularly swayed” by calls from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) for the lowering of the height limit, “because these are the people who in the end are responsible for getting people out of fires, so their view weighed pretty heavily with me”.

Mr Pringle added: “I don’t know why the Government is at 30, we don’t think it’s reasonable. If it’s cost, I think that’s misplaced. As I say, we want to go for 18 and just about everybody else is lined up with us on that.”

The coalition, which includes the RIBA, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the NFCC and Disability Rights UK, has said the 18-metre threshold would align with definitions in the Building Safety Act, thresholds for certain provisions in the Fire Safety (England) Regulations and would help to synchronise standards across the UK by aligning to rules in Scotland.

They added that research since the Grenfell Tower blaze suggesting more people are choosing to evacuate their building during a fire rather than following “stay put” advice demonstrates the importance of residents having access to safe evacuation routes.

Mr Pringle, who has been involved in teaching the next generation of architects, said young people must be “sensitised” to the responsibility they hold in the design industry.

He said: “I think Grenfell must be used as a sort of terrible icon, a terrible signifier of how important our work is and that literally people’s lives are in our hands and that as a young architect when you’re training you must be sensitised to your responsibilities going forward.

“We want to design beautiful buildings that people enjoy living in but there is also the serious matter of safety and I think for young people to be sensitised to that during their training is really important.”

The Government said consultation responses are being analysed and added that it recognises the need for clarity and pledged to provide that to the sector as soon as possible.

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