Skyscraper near Grenfell site goes back to drawing board over fire safety fears

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Skyscraper near Grenfell site goes back to drawing board over fire safety fears
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW)/PA

A second residential skyscraper is going back to the drawing board after the Guardian exposed safety fears over plans to provide only one fire escape staircase.

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Plans for a 35-storey block with a single staircase, 400 metres from Grenfell Tower in west London, are being rethought after the design was called “madness” by a fire safety expert and attacked as “shocking” by Grenfell United, which represents the survivors and bereaved 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”.

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URW’s move comes after the London fire brigade (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”.

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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 from 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 on 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, fire-fighting 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 and 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 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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