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Revealed - The UK’s death-trap towers

Nick Myall
Tuesday 23 Oct 2018

Up to 41,000 flats built using the ‘Large Panel System’ in the UK have potentially fatal construction flaws

Approximately 100,000 people across the UK live in tower blocks. However, according to housing experts many of these high-rise towers have a systemic structural flaw that puts them at risk of collapse.

Fifty years on from the Ronan Point collapse in 1968, the revelation that many of the towers with similar flawed construction are still in use will shock the nation.  

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster,  which caused 72 deaths, including two who later died in hospital, safety problems have come to light at towers built using the Large Panel System (LPS) method during the 1960s and 1970s. Buildings built using LPS account for more than 41,000 flats in at least 575 tower blocks in cities up and down the UK. Cracks in some flats have been found that are wide enough to allow residents to slide their hands in between the walls.

This news comes as eighty seven households have been told to leave their homes in a north London block of flats judged to be at risk of collapse.  They have been told to vacate their homes by the end of this October, but only 19 have accepted accommodation.

Checks after the Grenfell Tower fire found parts of the Tangmere block could fail if there was a gas explosion. According to the BBC, Haringey Council said it was working with residents to find them new homes.

Like many of the blocks on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham North London, the 116 flats in the six-storey Tangmere were built using the large panel system (LPS).

It is the same kind of construction as the Ronan Point block, which partially collapsed in east London 50 years ago, killing four people.

The incident led to a requirement for reinforcement work on similar towers. But this was not completed everywhere, and structural checks on the blocks in this estate were only ordered last year.

These reports are particularly concerning as the UK Government recently announced plans to remove the borrowing cap on Local Authorities, effectively allowing them to build council homes again. WAN’s editor in Chief, Michael Hammond asks John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams, the Rise and Fall of Council Housing and the UK’s foremost expert on council housing if Local Authorities are fit to build volume homes again? 

“If the reports are correct, the latest news regarding LPS blocks is both shocking yet unsurprising.  The problems and potential dangers are shocking in their persistence but entirely predictable given all we know of the blocks’ original construction – a fevered moment in mass public housing when system building methods were implemented on a huge scale in hurried and careless fashion.  The fault then lay in central government directives and local councils lacking the resources and expertise to apply any sort of quality control.  The direct blame lies, in my opinion, with the large construction companies who basically engaged in a modern form of jerry-building. 

Given this history and looking to the future, local authorities – belatedly trying to clean up this mess – must be fully supported by government in their efforts and given the financial backing they require.  The lesson, for me, is not that councils can’t be trusted to build and build well, remembering that two thirds of council homes built in the post-war period were of traditional brick construction, but that they must be fully resourced.  We must never again build on the cheap and that will apply as much to the new, so-called Modern Methods of Construction as it should have done to prefabrication in the past.  We must also listen to resident concerns to ensure that any form of regeneration which occurs maintains existing communities and social housing at the scale required.”

Many of the  41,000 flats built using LPS in the UK are at risk of complete collapse in the event of a fire or gas explosion.

Structural defects have been discovered at LPS blocks in Leicester, Rugby, Portsmouth and two estates in London over the past year. According to the Independent, hundreds of council tenants and leaseholders are in the process of being moved for their own safety.

Yet the defects and safety hazards – including the risk of a building collapse – are likely to be even more widespread, according to housing experts.

Tower Blocks UK, a campaign and research group, is now calling for the UK government to set up a nationwide safety audit, ensuring inspections are carried out at all LPS tower blocks across the country.

“This is an even bigger issue than Grenfell Tower because more tower blocks are affected by these structural problems than by cladding problems,” said Sam Webb, a retired architect who is the co-founder of Tower Blocks UK. “The government needs to take responsibility for this as a matter of urgency.”

“The government needs to carry out a safety audit to identify all the large panel system tower blocks, and make sure qualified experts check whether or not these blocks are safe,” said Frances Clarke of Tower Blocks UK.

“We have the face up to this because residents can’t be left at risk living in potentially unsafe buildings,” she added.

Commenting on the issue Labour MP John Healey, the shadow housing minister, said: “After Grenfell, the safety of these high-rise blocks is a national crisis so it must be the job of national government to get the work needed done.

“Government ministers must now ensure that all large panel system blocks are investigated to see that they meet the safety standards that residents expect, and any test results are published so that residents have full information about the safety of their homes.”

In an additional development, Leicester City Council has decided to demolish the 23-storey Goscote House once residents are moved out of the LPS block because of fears for its “long-term structural integrity”. Last month a Rugby Borough Council report recommended two LPS blocks at Biart Place were of “poor build quality” and should be brought down.

As investigations continue across the UK, Council bosses at Portsmouth and Haringey have yet to decide whether LPS blocks they deemed unsafe earlier this year should be demolished or strengthened.

The LPS technique was popular with UK councils in the 1960s as a way of getting high-density housing up in a hurry. Factory-made concrete panels were stacked on top of each other, then held together with bolted joints.

Fears about the LPS method date back to the disaster at Ronan Point in east London in 1968. A gas cooker explosion at a flat inside the LPS block led to the collapse of the entire south-east corner of the building. Four people were killed and 17 others injured.

According to the Independent problems with LPS towers could affect every major UK city. Hannah Brack, an independent housing researcher, has gathered evidence showing 575 tower blocks across Britain were built using the dubious LPS technique. Documents show these blocks still stand in every large city in the UK - from Belfast down to Brighton.

“This a major national problem,” says Ms Brack. “There could be at least 100,000 residents living in blocks built using LPS construction methods and potentially at risk.

Nick Myall

News editor

Key Facts:

Architecture
United Kingdom
Residential

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