Rethink for skyscraper near Grenfell site with single fire escape staircase

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW)/PA</span>
Photograph: Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW)/PA

The planned 35-storey block is the second tower this month to be adapted after criticism

The developer of a residential skyscraper designed with only one fire escape staircase has said it is changing its plans as the London fire brigade (LFB) said it was unhappy with the proposal.

The design of the 35-storey block with just one staircase 400 metres from Grenfell Tower in west London was branded “madness” by a fire safety expert and attacked as “shocking” by the survivors of the 14 June 2017 fire that killed 72 people.

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), the £46bn global shopping centre specialist behind the plan to build the tower next to its Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, said on Friday the “designs will be adapted where needed to reflect feedback and any requirements which may have changed since the original application was submitted”.

URW’s move comes after the LFB told planners at the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham: “We do not believe that sufficient justification has been provided for the tall single-stair approach.”

The LFB also complained the design provided “insufficient facilities … to support disabled occupants safely evacuating the building”.

The plan to rethink the fire strategy comes amid growing pressure on the government to tighten building regulations to make sure high-rise residents have more than one staircase to escape in the event of a fire. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is reviewing building regulations guidance on fire escape routes.

Some fire experts want to bring the UK into line with dozens of other countries where two or more escape stairs are required in tall buildings. But under current regulations guidance tall residential buildings are allowed to have single staircases as long as the strategy in the event of a fire is for residents to “stay put” – on the understanding the rest of the building is designed, built and maintained to stop fire spreading from flat to flat.

Numerous towers in planning, under construction and recently completed are likely to feature single staircases, albeit alongside other fire safety measures including smoke ventilation, firefighting lifts and sprinklers.

But some experts warn single stairs remain too risky because flaws in buildings, however inadvertent, may in practice allow fires to spread, making evacuation essential. This happened at Grenfell, where compartmentation failed and residents and firefighters had to use the same smoke-logged stairs, hampering escape.

The rethink by URW is the second by a major developer this month. Last week Ballymore withdrew its application for a 51-storey tower close to Canary Wharf from a planning hearing, amid alarm that it featured only one staircase. The London fire brigade also intervened.

In a statement about the Westfield tower a spokesperson for the LFB said: “While we are not a statutory consultee on such planning applications, we would always look to provide a response around the fire strategy in high-rise buildings, as we have in this case. We understand that there are revised plans for the development following our submission and we look forward to reviewing those.”

A spokesperson for Grenfell United said: “We’re pleased to hear the plans are being revised, but without regulation, there are no rules for what those revisions should look like. The reality is, we’re in the same position as we were before; current regulations mean these dangerous buildings are still legal. Had we not found the plans for this development, it would have gone ahead putting more lives at risk.”

URW said: “Since submitting our planning application for the residential development adjacent to Westfield London in April 2021, we have extensively consulted with the Hammersmith & Fulham planning department, our local community and other key stakeholders and we are currently working on the revised planning application to refine our designs.”

It added that building safety is “a key priority for any of our developments and we engage a fire engineer to ensure that designs satisfy the London Plan guidelines and meet all required building safety protocols”.

Andy Slaughter, the local MP, said: “It is good that individual developers are rethinking their plans but there is a gold rush of tall buildings with inadequate fire safety measures going through planning now … We need to put a stop on this until we have a proper review of fire safety measures that goes beyond cladding.”

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