Southwark residents to be evacuated over gas safety

Southwark residents to be evacuated over gas safety

RESIDENTS OF four 13 storey blocks in the Ledbury Estate in Peckham have been ‘ordered out’ over the ‘risk of collapse’ in the event of a gas explosion.

The council recently said it was ‘confident’ on the tower blocks’ safety, with the 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 on the site by council fire safety officers.

At the same time, the council hired building surveyors Arup to ‘assess the risks posed by large cracks in residents’ walls’, repairing these and testing the buildings’ structural integrity and ‘ability to withstand gas explosions’. The findings of the tests were said at the time to be set to ‘determine what strengthening works or refurbishments may need doing’.

The survey and fire risk assessment aimed to ‘determine the permanent fix to deal with the fire safety compartmentation issues’, with the main concern of residents that ‘if the tests find that the tower blocks should be demolished and rebuilt’. The Guardian has now reported residents have been ‘ordered out’ as a response to the checks, which found the buildings ‘had been at risk of collapse for decades’.

The development was described as having ‘potentially major implications for blocks elsewhere’, with residents said to have been ‘shocked and alarmed’ at the revelations. Southwark Council sent letters to the 242 flats’ residents stating they would have to ‘temporarily decant the blocks over the coming weeks and months’ for emergency works’, with the gas supplies already cut off and ‘leaving most residents without cooking facilities, hot water and heating’.

Electric hotplates were to be distributed, and showers available at a local leisure centre. The council believed the buildings had been strengthened, but in its letter noted this ‘may not be correct, with a council spokeswoman saying it was ‘not yet known how long residents would need to leave for, as this depended on further surveys’.

The survey came after surveyors Arnold Tarling and Sam Webb said the towers could collapse in an explosion, Mr Webb having written a report commissioned by a government inquiry into a gas explosion in 1968 in Newham, where the Ronan Point tower block partially collapsed and killed four people.

Mr Webb’s view was that the Ledbury towers were ‘built to a similar design’ to Ronan Point, and needed strengthening to ‘resist partial collapse’, adding that an explosion ‘could blow out the load-bearing end flank walls of that block of flats […] you will have a building collapse. If you have people in the kitchens and living rooms of those flats, they will be killed’.

Mr Tarling discussed a ‘catalogue of other fire risks’, and a council spokeswoman had initially stated that ‘whilst we are prepared for all eventualities, none of the experts we are talking to have mentioned demolition, and we remain confident that all fire safety risks can be dealt with while residents remain in the blocks’.

The Guardian also noted Mr Tarling said it ‘was likely there would be many other blocks around the country with similar problems’, and he was ‘aghast’ at the issues, noting that ‘as soon as I walked in and saw the gas supply, I knew it was all wrong. Southwark Council did not listen to me, and you really have to question their competence’.

Stephanie Cryan, Southwark’s deputy leader and cabinet member for housing, commented: ‘We didn’t own the blocks when they were constructed at the end of the 1960s, but all the reports we found suggested the blocks were strengthened following the Ronan Point incident in 1968 to make them safe to include a gas supply. Arup’s structural investigations suggest this strengthening may not have occurred, and we have therefore turned off the gas until further investigations can be done.’

The council has written to the department of communities and local government, Cllr Cryan added, ‘as it may well have implications for other blocks around the country that were constructed in this way’.