It is almost 50 years since Ivy Hodge went into the kitchen of her corner flat on the 18th floor of the then new Ronan Point tower in Canning Town, to make a cup of tea. As she lit the gas stove, there was an explosion, which threw her across the room. The blast also blew out the load bearing flank walls which supported the four flats above. This induced the progressive collapse of an entire corner of the tower.
After the collapse: Ronan Point
As Ronan Point had only just been opened, many of the flats were still unoccupied, hence the relatively low death toll of four people. But the dangers of gas installations in high rise buildings were all too clear, as was the inadequate structural strength of the building’s design. So when Grenfell Tower was built in the early 1970s, regulations had been tightened up. But many other blocks had escaped those new standards
The Ledbury Estate in Peckham, in south-east London, was one example: its four 13 storey towers had been built at the end of the 1960s using the same Large Panel System technique - fabricating reinforced concrete panels off-site and then bolting them together to form the completed building - as was used for Ronan Point. Newham Council had Ronan Point demolished at the end of the 1980s. The Ledbury towers are still there.
After Ronan Point, all towers constructed using LPS were supposed to have been reinforced, not just to prevent failure in the event of a gas blast, but also to ensure the structures could adequately withstand expected wind loadings, and not collapse in the event of a fire. Ronan Point and other nearby towers were strengthened. It now seems that the Ledbury towers got missed. And they all have gas supplies.
So it should have been no surprise to read the Guardian’s report telling “Hundreds of people have been told they will have to leave their homes on an estate of tower blocks in London after safety checks carried out following the Grenfell Tower fire found the buildings had been at risk of collapse for decades”. And there was more.
“The council has immediately ordered the gas supplies to be cut off, leaving most residents without cooking facilities, hot water and heating. The letter said officials would distribute electric hotplates and that residents could take showers at a local leisure centre … The discovery that the blocks are structurally unsafe heralds a potential new series of safety worries about high-rise flats”. And not just those on the Ledbury estate.
“Arnold Tarling, a surveyor and fire safety expert who first spotted the problem at the Ledbury estate, said it was likely there would be many other blocks around the country with similar problems”. Local authorities are now desperately checking building and maintenance records to make sure any similar blocks were strengthened.
As the Guardian also points out, “An investigation said buildings built using the same method [LPS] must be reinforced, or else have no gas supply”. That’s why the Ledbury towers have had the gas turned off. It won’t be back on until the work has been done.
Fifty years on, the lessons of poor building design and rushed construction are still being learned. Thankfully this time no-one has been killed. Well, not yet, anyway.