Means of escape: plans for second staircases in higher-risk buildings

In July last year, the government announced that it expected residential buildings higher than 18m to contain a second staircase. Further details were set out last month. Hywel Davies explores the latest statement

On 19 February, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, released a statement1 on the government’s long-term plans for housing. It included four paragraphs on the provision of ‘second staircases’ in higher-risk buildings – namely, residential blocks above 18m in height. It also refers to evacuation lifts.

One factor that contributed to the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire was that the single stair core became unusable as a means of escape because of smoke. There has been debate about the need for a second means of escape ever since.

Second staircases were consulted on in December 2022. A further speech committed to an 18m threshold in July 2023 and the latest statement follows speculation about the detailed policy. 

Gove has stated that ‘the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) will publish the new guidance on second staircases before April, making clear the need for a second staircase in new multi-occupancy residential buildings that have a top occupied storey above 18m, and confirming that evacuation lifts will not be called for as a matter of course, providing housebuilders with the clarity they need to progress developments’.

What does that actually mean for developers? It does not change their responsibility for the safety of their building.  Government and the BSR are very clear that a developer applying for approval of full plans for a new residential building must show why they think the building will be safe to occupy. We must also be clear that there is no such thing as absolute safety. Second means of escape, sprinklers, evacuation lifts, even compartmentation and fire stopping may reduce risk, but they do not offer absolute safety.

Building Regulations in England and the rest of the UK are currently at variance with many other jurisdictions around the world in allowing taller residential buildings to be constructed with a single means of escape. Last July’s announcement that new residential buildings above 18m in height would need a ‘second stair’ left many questions open, such as whether this would be a requirement or just guidance in the Approved Document.

How might developers of residential buildings respond to the latest statement? It seems clear that the BSR will expect them to provide a second means of escape – but what will that look like? That depends on the fire-evacuation strategy, already required in the package submitted for approval of full plans known as Gateway 2, and signed off by developers at submission. 

Rather than the government clarifying the issue, it has handed it back to the BSR and developers to resolve

Two functional requirements of the Building Regulations consider escape and access: ‘appropriate means of escape from the building to a place of safety outside the building, capable of being safely and effectively used at all material times’ (B1) and reasonable provision for fire-fighting. (B5). The developer needs to decide whether they are looking to reduce evacuation times by providing a basic second staircase. Or are they providing an alternative access route for firefighters? That requires both a second stair and firefighting lift. Each building needs a decision by the client and design team.

Gove’s statement says that evacuation lifts ‘will not be called for as a matter of course’. It could be taken to mean that, as a rule, they are to be expected, but a case may be made not to include one. It implies that it’s up to the client to decide how to provide for those who cannot evacuate using the stairs, and for the BSR to accept that decision (or not?).

If the development contains social housing or student accommodation, there may be a public sector equality duty to consider in relation to the evacuation strategy. If it is entirely for sale or lease, how will that market react to the chosen strategy? 

When complete, it will need a BSR building assessment certificate confirming it is safe to occupy, requiring a safety case specific to the building. With an ageing population, safe and equitable access and means of escape is also a demographic issue. Buildings will need to be adaptable.

It may be that the only feasible design with a realistic prospect of approval in many cases will incorporate two full cores offering genuine accessibility, resilience and redundancy in the event of a catastrophic incident. 

This would align with the stance of the National Fire Chiefs Council2. Rather than clarify the issue the Department has handed it back to the BSR and developers to resolve. And then to clarify through the first tranche
of applications, appeals, determinations and maybe a judicial review?

Second staircases and evacuation lifts: an inclusive design perspective

By Rachel Smalley, head of inclusion at Jacobs

In October last year , the Secretary of State announced intended transitional arrangements to accompany new guidance relating to second staircases in new residential buildings in England above 18 metres3. The Secretary of State described these as ‘the latest step in a continuing effort to ensure that new buildings are constructed, managed and maintained to the very highest standards’, messaging which was reiterated in the Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) ‘Long-term plan for housing update’ issued on 19 February 20244.

The WMS committed the Building Safety Regulator to ‘publish the new statutory guidance [in the form of a revised Approved Document B] on second staircases before the end of March, making clear the need for a second staircase in new multi-occupancy residential buildings that have a top occupied storey above 18 metres, and confirming that evacuation lifts will not be called for as a matter of course, providing housebuilders with the clarity they need to progress developments.’

The justification for these changes is that a ‘second staircase will provide new buildings with additional resilience to support exit from the building and enhanced options for fire-fighting in the rare event of a catastrophic incident…and…will provide people with further confidence in the safety of new homes.’

So, what has this got to do with inclusive design?

To answer this question, we need to step back for a moment and understand what inclusive design is and who it considers. An inclusive design approach takes into account any protected characteristic group (Equality Act 2010) for whom the design of the built environment could potentially impact both positively or negatively, including (but not limited to):

  • Age: a range of age groups including older people, young people and children​
  • Disabilitypeople with ambulant mobility impairments, wheelchair users, blind and partially sighted people, people with learning disabilities, people who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment, people with mental health conditions, some people with neurodiverse conditions and people with cognitive impairments​
  • People of all genders and gender identities​
  • People who are pregnant or have very young children​
  • People with a range of religious beliefs (or none)

Taking a range of end user group requirements into account helps to ensure that the resultant built environments work for a range of end users, and peoples’ experiences are not less favourable due to their personal requirements, protected characteristics, or perceived ‘differences’.

People who require level access/egress do not all come under one protected characteristic group, they could have protected characteristics relating to disability, age, pregnancy and maternity, or more than one of these at any given time. In addition people’s requirements can change over time or with age, with different life events, or on a temporary basis.

Despite high-rise residential buildings in the UK growing increasing in prevalence since the 1950s, there has been very little change in means of escape provisions since the introduction of British Standard Code of Practice CP 3: Chapter IV 1962 Code Of Basic Data For The Design Of Buildings Chapter IV Precautions Against Fire Part 1. Fire Precautions in Flats and Maisonettes over 80ft in Height.

This is despite the changing demographics of the UK. For example, just in terms of the protected characteristic of age, in the last UK Census in 2021 over 11 million people – 18.6% of the total population – were aged 65 years or older, compared with 16.4% at the time of the previous census in 2011.

Without careful consideration of factors such as changing demographics, the design of the built environment can unintentionally work to treat some people less favourably than others due to their protected characteristics or personal requirements.

Level egress from buildings in an emergency is a requirement for a range of people, but why has it been linked to the subject of second staircases in this Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) by the Secretary of State? On the surface second staircases and level egress are two distinct subjects, which should be addressed separately.

The link between the two lines within the WMS stated benefit of ‘supporting exit from the building’ and the Equality Act definition of discrimination. This benefit will only be experienced by people who can use the stairs and who do not require level egress. If it is intended that people will use the second staircase to exit from a new-build residential building in an emergency, then people who require level egress will have fewer options to exit the building, compared with people who can use stairs.

The extent to which people who require level access are treated less favourably is likely to increase with these changes. This is because the new requirements are very likely to result in a greater difference in options and experience for people who require level egress, when compared with options which will be available to people who do not. The difference between the two groups’ experience is likely to increase, be exacerbated and ‘worsened’, creating greater disparity and differential treatment of certain people due to their protected characteristic requirements.

Some people may read the WMS and assume that evacuation lifts are already included in statutory guidance and will simply not be included in the guidance for the second staircase. However Approved Document B does not currently contain any guidance on the installation of fire evacuation lifts.

People who can use stairs currently have at least one option for independent egress, and will soon, in many new build residential buildings, have a second. But what independent egress options exist for people for whom stairs are not suitable? The answer in most cases is none.

The proposed amendment to the statutory guidance to incorporate guidance on a second staircase represented an opportunity to rectify this situation and many expected that this would happen. The caveat ‘as a matter of course’ still maintains some possibility that acknowledgement of the diversity of end user requirements may be considered by developers.

This is more likely in London due to London Plan policy D5 Inclusive Design. However, more generally and outside of London the WMS does not give much hope that a much-needed change from historic guidance and a traditional approach which does not consider all resident requirements is coming.

It will also be interesting to see how the Secretary of State shows how Section 149 of the Equality Act (2010) has been responded to in terms of the decision-making process which informed the WMS. Section 149 requires public authorities to, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it, …in particular, to the need to—

(a) remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are connected to that characteristic

(b) take steps to meet the needs of persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are different from the needs of persons who do not share it

The forthcoming amendments to the statutory guidance (Approved Document B) represented an opportunity to deliver meaningful change to people who will be living in new build residential buildings in England above 18 meters, to futureproof dwellings and ensure they are suitable for as many people as possible in terms of egress. However, based on the WMS, it would appear this will not be achieved.


  1. Written Ministerial Statement:
  2. NFCC Opinion paper
  3. House of Commons, Building Safety Update, Statement made on 24 October 2023 Statement UIN HCWS1090)
  4. February 2024 statement: Written statements – Written questions, answers and statements – UK Parliament