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Planning and fire safety - the first Association of Rooftop & Airspace Development live roundtable

Recently the Association of Rooftop & Airspace Development in the UK hosted the first ARAD virtual roundtable, moderated by Fruition Properties’ Neil Fanning, with special guests David Morris (DP9), Geoff Wilkinson (The Building Inspectors / Wilkinson Construction Consultants) and Archie Chandler (FSC-live).

ARAD recently hosted its first virtual roundtable looking at planning, fire regulations and the impact on the airspace sector. The discussion was moderated by Fruition Properties’ development director Neil Fanning, with special guests including planning expert David Morris (board director – DP9), building control specialist Geoff Wilkinson (managing director – The Building Inspectors/Wilkinson Construction Consultants) and fire consultant Archie Chandler (chairman – FCS-live).

There was a unified sense that airspace truly has the potential to unlock much-needed housing if done properly, with David Morris commenting that “we don’t necessarily need to build new and tall – there are lots of studies that show if you put just one floor on every building in London, you’d easily meet future housing demand. However, the sector does need a more mature approach and there is some hesitance from Government at present.”

Here are the key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Local authorities are scared of relinquishing control. The perceived problem with a lack of regulation on design and layouts – which PD effectively provides – is that it gives the market the power to self-regulate, which is not always a good thing as has been shown by the office-to-resi PD, which yielded many unsatisfactory builds where cutting costs became the priority. The sector now has the regulatory tools to deliver airspace – it is up to them to deliver it properly and show that PD is a good thing, or risk it being taken away.

  • Lack of joined up thinking; there is a view that Building Control should be a statutory consultee as part of the planning process. “One of the biggest issues is that for years we have had two sets of permissions (planning and building control) that don’t talk to each other – we have historically seen cases of planners who don’t fully understand how buildings operate. Involving Building Control from the outset would enable both parties to have the right conversations. However, planners should not actively get involved with decisions around fire safety – which should be left to the experts.”

  • There remains debate over the new Building Safety Bill and the need for sprinklers in buildings over 11m. All agree with the principal, however some believe if storeys are being added via airspace, then only the new floors should require them – while others believe the entire building should be updated to bring it up to spec, with reports that some local authorities are now even wanting developers to go above and beyond existing regs. “This presents some viability and practical challenges, particularly around access to the lower storeys to fit sprinklers and other solutions if the building is occupied or has been internally remodelled at any point.”

  • A discussion around risk - the statistics for people dying in homes due to fire are incredibly low, with more people dying from overheating or falling down stairs. Ultimately we all want safe buildings but there needs to be a balance that allowsthe delivery of much-needed new homes. We should review risk more broadly, which is often driven by the insurance and funding industries. “We have pivoted from one extreme to the other which can stifle development – there must be a middle ground and there needs to be a discussion among all stakeholders including the London Fire Brigade.”

  • There is a need for the right expertise on the Government’s side – the Building Safety Regulator (part of the HSE) is actively recruiting at present, however, often these employees do not have the skillset or practical expertise to make informed decisions around fire safety and engineering. As a result, how can the right discussions take place to move things forward?

Ultimately, the overarching theme from the discussion was that there needs to be more joined-up discussions from all stakeholders involved in the development process, which ARAD will be lobbying for. ARAD thanks all of its guests and looks forward to further discussions in future.

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