HC Deb 06 November 1968 vol 772 cc902-10
The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Anthony Greenwood)

The House will recollect that on 17th May I appointed Mr. Hugh Griffiths, Q.C., Professor Sir Alfred Pugsley and Professor Sir Owen Saunders, to hold a public inquiry into the collapse on 16th May of part of a block of flats, known as Ronan Point, in the London Borough of Newham. I have today published their Report, and copies are available in the Vote Office.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr. Griffiths and his colleagues for the careful investigation they have made and for the clear way in which they have set out their findings and recommendations. Her Majesty's Government fully accept the findings as to the causes of the accident, and are in broad agreement with the recommendations for action.

Ronan Point is a 22-storey block of flats, built of large prefabricated concrete panels to form load-bearing walls and floors. The Report establishes that the immediate cause of the accident was an explosion following a gas leak in an 18th floor flat. The explosion blew out panels forming part of the load-bearing flank wall. This led to the failure of other structural components which in turn caused the whole south-east corner of the block above and below the seat of the explosion to collapse. The Tribunal describes this type of cumulative failure as "progressive collapse".

The Tribunal finds that this behaviour of the building was inherent in its design and was not due to faulty workmanship. It states that progressive collapse after such an accident can be avoided by the introduction of sufficient steel reinforcement to provide effective ties at the joints between the structural components, and by so arranging the components that loads can be carried in alternative ways if a failure occurs.

The Report also examines the possible effects of high winds on buildings of this kind. This is the subject of continuing study, the results of which are not fully reflected in the Report. We shall take account of the latest appraisals in considering this part of the Report.

The Tribunal recommends that existing blocks in large panel construction over six storeys in height should be structually appraised and where necessary strengthened. It recommends that the gas supply should be cut off in any blocks judged susceptible to progressive collapse until they have been strengthened. Provided the danger of progressive collapse is removed, there is no reason, in the Tribunal's view, to prohibit the use of gas in high buildings, and no reason why forms of construction using large pre-cast concrete panels should be discontinued.

It further recommends that the Building Regulations, and the codes of practice incorporated in them, should be revised to deal with these risks.

The House will recollect that, following the receipt of a letter from the chair- man, we advised local authorities in August to cut off the gas supply from blocks where there appeared to be a risk of progressive collapse. This removed the principal risk of accidental explosion. After consultation with the building industry and the local authority associations we shall shortly give local authorities advice about the urgent appraisal and, where necessary, strengthening of existing blocks, and about the design of new blocks, to secure them against the risks to which the Report has drawn attention. In this work we have had and shall continue to have the valuable help of the National Building Agency.

We are putting in hand an urgent revision of the Building Regulations. The British Standards Institution has agreed to undertake urgently the examination and revision of codes of practice as recommended in the report. We intend to incorporate the results in the Building regulations as they become available. This work will be supported by expert advice from the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, the Building Research Station, the National Physical Laboratory, and the Joint Fire Research Organisation, and by whatever further experimental work may be found necessary. The Government accept responsibility for ensuring that the regulations and codes of practice are kept up to date.

We are considering urgently a number of subsidiary recommendations.

Large panel construction of high blocks has been used in this country since 1958. But it is clear that the dangers to which this occurrence has drawn attention were not appreciated by the designers of these buildings, by those, including Government Departments—my own among them—responsible for laying down or advising on standards of construction, and by the many professional bodies consulted in the formulation of those standards. As however, the Report makes particular reference to the National Building Agency, I would like to say that the work the Agency has done on housing in recent years has followed an order of priority agreed with the Ministry.

Finally, in expressing the Government's resolve to put matters right swiftly, I hope that I may be excused for reminding right hon. and hon. Members, first, that the Tribunal has found nothing wrong with construction systems using load-bearing panels that cannot be put right; and, secondly, that although certain restrictions may have to be applied or continued, they do not amount to a prohibition of the use of gas in blocks of this kind. We have done and we will do all that is humanly possible to avoid a repetition of this rare but tragic occurrence.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is the Minister aware that we shall want to study the Report very carefully and may later wish to debate it?

While joining in the thanks which he has made to those who took part in the inquiry, may I ask him: is it not now essential to allay anxiety which there may be among residents in tall blocks of flats, and to assure them that anything which needs to be done to strengthen any blocks of this kind of panel construction will be done as a matter of urgency?

Is it not a fact that high-rise flats have been built and used all over Europe for many years now with complete success? Will the Minister take this assurance from us, that in so far as the Building Regulations need to be amended in any way necessary, we will help in any way we can?

Mr. Greenwood

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, after we have had an opportunity of considering the Report it may well be useful to have a debate, if that can be arranged through the usual channels.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, because this is an extremely complex problem. I think that, if we were to get into technicalities today, there would be a genuine risk of doing injustice to some of the bodies and persons mentioned in the Report.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to allay anxiety. I hope that this statement in the House today, and also, I hope, the Press coverage later, will go some way towards doing this.

It has certainly been a matter of urgency. I received the Report from the Tribunal on 14th October and published it the first day it was possible to complete the printing. As soon as I got the Report, I set up a technical work- ing party to consider criteria which should be applied in appraising these high blocks of flats, and today we are approaching the building industry and the local authority associations with these criteria. After discussion of them, we hope to issue them to all local authorities, within two or three weeks.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right in saying that this is a system of building which has been used with great success in other parts of the Continent of Europe. So far as I know, this disaster is unique with this kind of building.

I have very much in mind the importance of reviewing the Building Regulations, and we have already started work upon this, through the British Standards Institution's working party, on information provided by the Building Research Station. We hope, after consideration by (he Building Regulations Advisory Committee, that it will be possible in the fairly near future to issue a revised building regulation.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, in whose constituency this tragic event took place, may I ask that his name be associated with the thanks which have been expressed to all those concerned in the inquiry and to the local authority, which was most helpful. I, too, would like to join in that.

May I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the council concerned will not be expected to meet out of the local rates the costs involved in the strengthening of flats with steel joists? Will help be given?

May I also ask whether or not consideration has been given to compensation to the people concerned both for the tragic loss of life and for the loss of possessions? Will compensation also be given to those people who since the accident have had to convert from gas to electricity? If the Minister is not yet in a position to give a detailed reply, will he give favourable consideration to the matter as soon as possible?

Mr. Greenwood

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has put his question. I am grateful to him, and I know that Mr. Griffiths and his colleagues will be grateful to him, for the expression of thanks for the work that they have done in preparing the Report.

It is a little difficult, until we have had the appraisal of these high blocks of flats which is shortly to be started, to say what the cost will be. We had better wait until we know a little more about this before we consider the financial implications. My hon. Friend will remember that my hon. and learned Friend the then Minister of State said on a previous occasion, when considering the interim action taken in August, that it would be quite wrong for undue expense to fall upon individuals affected by this occurrence.

Mr. Costain

As my hon. Friend has said, until the Report has been studied in detail it is impossible to make comment. Does the Minister appreciate that people living in tall blocks of flats and councils who are considering building tall blocks of flats feel a great deal of apprehension? Is it possible for the Minister to issue a clearance order, since the matters are concerned with load-bearing panels and are very technical? This would reassure residents of high blocks built to different systems, possibly not affected by the Report.

Mr. Greenwood

This is a tragic occurrence by reason not only of the loss of life and suffering involved, but also of the anxiety which has been caused to people who feel, with however little justification, that they may be living in perilous conditions.

The question put by the hon. Gentleman is, I think, covered by what I have said about the technical criteria which we have already worked out. We are treating this as a matter of great urgency, and within the next two to three weeks, after we have had the necessary discussions with the industry and the local authority associations, we shall be in a position to define more accurately than we can now the buildings which need appraisal.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is it true that the drawings remained in the National Building Agency offices for three years without appraisal? Is not the Agency paid £½ million a year precisely to avoid this kind of disaster? Why was the responsibility for vetting passed from the Agency to the local authorities, who cannot be expected to cope with a technical job of this difficulty?

Mr. Greenwood

I cannot for the life of me understand how my hon. Friend got this idea that the drawings for these buildings remained for three years in the offices of the National Building Agency. The Agency, with the full support of the Ministry of Housing, concentrated in its work on industrialised building on appraising the large number of low-rise industrial systems which were constituting the major part of industrialised building in the local authority sphere.

This was something upon which local authorities needed urgent advice; whereas the larger systems, the more important and higher systems of building, which were involved on this occasion had been well tried on the Continent, and there was no reason to believe that they were not satisfactory. There was certainly no question of responsibility being passed by the Agency to the local authorities.

As is normal on these occasions, the local authority supplied to the Ministry a certificate that they were complying with the by-laws in operation at that time, but, in the light of experience, we now find that the requirements which then operated were not satisfactory. But this, of course, is the product of hindsight and not failure on the part of anybody concerned at the time.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Will the Minister say approximately how many blocks of flats in different parts of the country are affected by this sub-standard condition and will need attention?

Mr. Greenwood

It is not a question of "sub-standard". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw that remark. I do not say this reproachfully, but this is the kind of careless remark which can cause a good deal of anxiety. This was not sub-standard work; it was a failure in design. The Report shows quite clearly that there are jointing difficulties in some systems of industrialised high building, and that is what we have to establish.

When we took urgent interim action in August there were about 50 blocks of flats where there were prima facie grounds for supposing that there might be this weakness in the jointing. In the light of what the Tribunal has said, we anticipate that we shall be appraising perhaps as many as 200 blocks of flats, in many of which no doubt the situation will be shown to be satisfactory.

Mr. Richard

May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on this, since my borough is one which was inspected in July? May we take it that there are not likely to be a significantly greater number of blocks of flats which will now have to be altered than were contained in the interim information issued in July? If so, what are the different criteria which are now to apply?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend confirm that his reappraisal will be completed within approximately two to three weeks so that by the end of the month everyone in England ought to know where they are?

Mr. Greenwood

The situation has changed. When we took urgent action in August it was in respect of the dangers from gas, but it has now been shown by the Tribunal that there may well be dangers either from fire or windload in buildings of this kind. Therefore, we are casting our net more widely. I do not think that there is any likelihood of all the buildings having been appraised within the next two or three weeks, but within this period we shall be able to give to local authorities the technical guidance to enable them to do this work.

We hope that local authorities who are not themselves staffed to undertake important work of this kind will employ engineering consultants to give them the benefit of their experience.

Mr. Lubbock

Although the Minister is unable to commit himself precisely until he knows the total cost of these structural alterations, will he accept the principle that there should be direct assistance from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to the local authorities affected?

Secondly, what arrangements will be made for the tenants who will have their gas cut off pending structural alterations, particularly where it is used for central heating?

Mr. Greenwood

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to follow him in the tempting line of discussion which he raised in the first part of his question. As I have said, until we know more about it, it is difficult to talk usefully on the subject, but I do not think that there is any reason to suppose that there will be difficulties in respect of the point he raised in the second part of his question. Many local authorities dealt with this problem in August, and have dealt with it satisfactorily and with proper consideration for the people for whose care they are responsible.

Mrs. Renée Short

In the action that my right hon. Friend intends to take following this Report, will he bear in mind firmly that, not only must he maintain the confidence of occupiers of this type of building, but that of architects, engineers and construction firms? As, by all accounts, the Report is likely to be rather controversial in these circles, will he proceed with caution in the directions that he issues to local authorities and firms and, in addition, do everything that he can to make sure that we get an opportunity of debating the matter in this House before any irrevocable decisions are taken about it?

Mr. Greenwood

I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that the use of Parliamentary time is beyond my control. However, I think that she has made a very valid point. This is a matter where, if possible, we must avoid recriminations. The Tribunal has been extremely fair. It has criticised individuals, the professions, and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Accordingly, I hope that the professions and the building industry will take the criticism in the same good part as I hope that I take it on behalf of the Government.