Hundreds of UK tower blocks ‘at risk of collapse’
BLOCKS CONSTRUCTED with the large panel system (LPS) method have a ‘systemic structural flaw’ that means they are at risk of collapse, according to housing experts.
The Independent reported on the views of fire and construction experts Sam Webb and Arnold Tarling, who have urged the government to investigate the issue, which they believe is ‘bigger […] than Grenfell’ because the defects identified would cover around 41,000 flats home to around 100,000 people. The LPS method was used to build towers in the 1960s and 1970s, with cracks in some flats ‘wide enough to allow residents to slide their hands inbetween the walls’.
This also leaves the towers ‘at risk of complete collapse in thee vent of a fire or gas explosion’, such as what happened at Ronan Point in the 1960s, with these defects discovered at the blocks in Leicester, Rugby, Portsmouth and two estates in London. As a consequence, hundreds of council tenants and leaseholders are ‘in the process of being moved for their own safety’, with documents seen by the news outlet showing at least 575 such blocks still standing across the UK.
This means that the hazards are ‘likely to be even more widespread’, with campaign and research group Tower Blocks UK calling for the government to set up a nationwide fire safety audit and inspect all UK LPS tower blocks. Mr Webb, co founder of the group, stated: ‘This is an even bigger issue than Grenfell because more tower blocks are affected by these structural problems than by cladding problems. The government needs to take responsibility for this as a matter of urgency.’
The group is asking for either the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) or the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to inspect the buildings, with its representative Frances Clark adding: ‘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. We have the face up to this because residents can’t be left at risk living in potentially unsafe buildings.’
In London, the four buildings on the Ledbury Estate – constructed in the LPC method - saw their gas supplies cut last August and certain residents evacuated as a consequence, with structural defects cited. Southwark council had said it was ‘confident’ on the tower blocks’ safety, with inspections discovering ‘urgent fire safety risks in dozens of flats that had been present, in some cases, for up to 30 years’, and type four ‘thorough and intrusive’ fire risk assessments were carried out by council fire safety officers
A report from Mr Tarling and Mr Webb recommended the buildings be demolished, while structural experts Arup recommended extensive strengthening works. The council later adopted 18 fire safety and repairs recommendations after an independent review of its handling of the issues, while in Leicester, the council elected to demolish the 23 storey Goscote House due to fears for its ‘long-term structural integrity’.
Two blocks at Biart Place in Rugby were also recommended to be demolished, with residents to be rehoused ahead of any such decision. Portsmouth and Haringey Councils have ‘yet to decide’ whether their LPS blocks ‘deemed unsafe’ should be demolished or strengthened, with Mr Tarling believing ‘fundamental’ structural flaws mean the risk of collapse remains in all such blocks.
He added: ‘It’s like a house of cards. The cards were stacked up and held together by a bit of simple bracing work. It’s not just the risk of gas explosion like Ronan Point. A serious enough fire in a LPS building could result in collapse. The floor slabs would expand and push out the external wall panels and things would break up quite quickly. Strengthening work isn’t viable with these blocks. The flaws are so fundamental.’
Independent housing researcher Hannah Brack gathered the evidence showing that 575 blocks were built using LPS methods, and she said: ‘This is a major national problem. There could be at least 100,000 residents living in blocks built using LPS construction methods and potentially at risk. The government needs to help local authorities come up with a plan to deal with it. These were flats built using the very shoddiest of methods. Councils just don’t know exactly what they have on their hands and what to do with them now.’
Both she and Mr Tarling have been told by several councils that they ‘no longer hold a complete record of building work’ at LPS blocks, so it ‘isn’t clear which towers have undergone repairs in an effort to strengthen them’. Mr Tarling noted that this was ‘a mess’, adding that ‘the government needs to find out where the blocks are, what state they are in, and start facing up to the problem. You can’t leave residents in potential danger’.
An MHCLG spokeswoman said that it had held its first meeting recently to discuss the LPS issue, adding that ‘building owners are responsible for checking their properties and we have given councils and housing associations advice on checking the structural safety of buildings which use large panel systems’.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the meeting had taken place but ‘could not say’ how many council representatives attended, and a spokesman added: ‘The issues that building owners face with LPS buildings are complex and technical ones. They require expert advice on what to do and the LGA is not placed to do that. We have therefore been pushing the government to provide that advice.’