Permission to build a 51-story skyscraper with a single escape route for more than 400 apartments is expected to be granted on Thursday, in a move security activists have called “frightening”.
Plans for one of the UK’s tallest residential buildings will be presented to London’s Tower Hamlets Borough Planning Committee on Thursday evening with a recommendation from the authorities for approval.
The Cuba Street tower near Canary Wharf will have 655 rooms, the tallest towering nearly 170 meters in the air, two and a half times the height of Grenfell Tower.
It has only one staircase, which is allowed by building regulations if the fire strategy is to tell residents to stay home. All new buildings over 11 meters must also be sprinklered.
But fire safety experts warn it is inadequate because design features meant to keep people safe in their apartments could fail, triggering an evacuation as firefighters try to use the same stairs in the opposite direction. The tower is being developed by Ballymore, and residents of another of the company’s nearby apartment complexes, New Providence Wharf (NPW), have also expressed concerns about the design.
Smoke clogged hallways at NPW during a severe fire in May that injured three people. London firefighters discovered ventilation systems, the fire brigade lift and door stops were not working as expected.
“It’s very scary,” said Natalie Carter, a resident of New Providence Wharf and a member of the Tower Hamlets Justice for Leaseholders group. “If they need to evacuate for whatever reason, you’re talking about doing it on the same staircase that the fire department would use, that sounds absolutely bonkers.”
Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor and fire safety expert, added: ‘It’s utter madness that this is still allowed. He recently inspected a newly built apartment tower in the same area of London and found serious faults which would mean residents might not be safe to stay in their flats in the event of a fire.
He said the worst-case scenario of having a single staircase was “another fire in the Bronx, another Grenfell, another Lakanal-type fire”, references to fires in public housing buildings last week in New York , in west London in 2017 and south London in 2009 which together killed 89 people.
Fire safety experts contacted by the Guardian said second stairs reduce the square footage of salable apartments and thus limit profitability.
The president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Simon Allford, said public safety must be the primary concern of the new government building safety regulator. He called on him to set a new height threshold from which at least two staircases are necessary to allow access for firefighters and the evacuation of residents.
The International Building Code, which is adopted by many countries and US states but not the UK, requires buildings over 128 meters to have at least two staircases.
The latest 2019 version of the UK guidelines simply state that “appropriate means of escape in the event of a building fire… [must be] that can be used safely and effectively at all relevant times”.
“In my opinion, you need to build resilience,” said Russ Timpson, secretary of the Tall Building Fire Safety Network. “You have to have a plan A and a plan B, because if holding down doesn’t work, simultaneous evacuation is an almost impossible challenge with just one staircase. All over the world, firefighters talk about having an emergency staircase and an attack staircase.
Asked about the single staircase, a Ballymore spokesman said the planning request “will only move forward with the support of London Fire and Building Control”.
The Department of Upgrading, Housing and Communities said it is ‘reviewing guidance on building regulations, including the provision of escape routes needed to ensure residents are safe in the event of a fire “.
A spokesperson said: ‘We are making the biggest improvements to building safety in 40 years – with tougher regulations that will give residents more rights and protections and make homes safer.’
Building safety campaigners also argue that Ballymore should first invest in addressing fire safety issues in existing blocks as part of the wider building safety crisis.
On Monday, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levels, Housing and Communities, announced that the government would legislate to force developers to pay to fix unsafe apartment buildings. The Treasury told Gove it “must prioritize safety over supply”.
Ballymore said it had ‘committed significant investment to cover the cost of resurfacing, with work having been underway at our developments for some time, and working to ensure tenants bear no cost’.