Firms building single-stair towers are ‘betraying’ residents, says Hackitt

The ongoing construction of high-rise residential blocks with only a single staircase is a “betrayal” of future residents, according to Judith Hackitt, chair of the Industry Safety Steering Group.

In December, the government launched a consultation on whether to make it illegal to build tower blocks over 30 metres with a single staircase in England, while London mayor Sadiq Khan banned new single-stair towers over 30 metres in the capital last month.

This week the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Chartered Institute of Builders said they believe that all residential buildings over 18 metres should have at least two staircases. However, even single-stair towers over 30 metres that have already been given planning permission can legally continue to be built.

Speaking at the Leading Building Safety conference on Thursday (23 March), Hackitt said: “There are still high-rise buildings being built today in this city [London] of 30 storeys or more where a there single staircases are being put in”.

“I cannot fathom the logic why people are doing it, but the justification that comes back when you ask the question as to why that is happening is: ‘Well, the plans were approved before Gateway One [part of the new building safety regulatory regime] was in place.’

“Is that really a justification for knowingly building a building that you know is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to evacuate in the event of a fire?”

Hackitt, who is best known for authoring the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, added: “I sincerely hope that those who are doing that work never [have to] answer for actions in the event of a tragedy.

“If I was one of them, I would find it hard to sleep at night if I’d been part of that decision-making process knowing that standards are about to change and in full knowledge of the betrayal of people who will buy and live in those apartments in years to come.”

Single-staircase towers have been allowed in England in the past due to buildings’ “stay-put” policy – in which residents are advised to stay in their homes in the event of a fire. This was deemed safe as a fire should not spread to other parts of the building.

However, the policy was cast into doubt following the death of 72 people at Grenfell Tower in 2017. The tower’s residents were initially told not to evacuate, but fire compartmentation failed as flammable cladding and insulation aided a rapid spread of flames.

Between April 2019 and April 2022, the London Fire Brigade reported 154 cases of fires in buildings of six storeys or more where 10 or more residents evacuated. A total of 8,500 people evacuated their buildings rather than stay put during this time, according to the brigade.

A second staircase would make evacuation in a fire safer, as it would provide a secondary escape if one staircase was affected by fire or smoke. It would also provide greater capacity for residents to evacuate, as well as more space if firefighters wanted to travel up a high-rise building.

Elsewhere in her speech, Hackitt said the adoption of a better safety culture among building firms had been “very mixed”.

“There are some pockets of really good practice and leadership, which is encouraging. But there are some who talk a very good job, but when you start to probe beneath the surface, that real commitment and real sense of purpose as to why they should be doing this isn’t there,” she said.

Leave a comment