HL Deb 06 November 1968 vol 297 cc261-7

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, I think that this may be a convenient moment for me to repeat a Statement which is being made in the House of Commons by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing about Ronan Point. The Statement is as follows:

"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 pan 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 should 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 describe this type of cumulative failure as 'progressive collapse'.

"The Tribunal find that this behaviour of the building was inherent in its design and was not due to faulty workmanship. They state 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 building 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 recommend that existing blocks in large panel construction over 6-storeys in height should be structurally appraised and where necessary strengthened. They recommend 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.

"They further recommend 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 Chairman, 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 have 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 should like to say that the work the Agency have 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 I may be excused for reminding right honourable and honourable Members, first, that the Tribunal have 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 will do all that is humanly possible to avoid a repetition of this rare but tragic occurrence."


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Minister's Statement. By any standard it is a grave statement about a tragic occurrence, but I think that in the circumstances—although, of course, I have not yet had the opportunity to read the Tribunal's Report—it may be regarded as a reasonably satisfactory statement.

My Lords, the Minister has said that the Government fully accept the findings as to the causes of the accident and are in broad agreement with the recommendations for action. But the really serious thing about this Statement seems to be that the Tribunal found that the behaviour of this building was inherent in its design and was not due to faulty workmanship. Furthermore, your Lordships will recall that towards the end of the Statement the noble Lord said: But it is clear that the dangers to which this occurrence has drawn attention were not appreciated by the designer 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. My Lords, I regard that as being an alarming state of affairs. I will not linger upon the implications, because your Lordships will see the implications for yourselves. I do not want to take the Government to task too much about this, because this Statement is probably as humble an apology as any Minister or Government Department is ever likely to make. Certainly I think it is in effect the humblest apology that I have ever heard the Minister of a Government Department make. Quite obviously the building regulations must be revised very quickly and also the codes of practice in the trade. I think that the encouraging thing about this Report is that the Government realise that.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I join in thanking the Minister for repeating this Statement and in paying tribute to Mr. Griffiths and his colleagues. This is a serious Statement. May I ask whether compensation was paid to the tenants of Ronan Point flats who suffered from the collapse. And who will bear the cost of this urgent re-appraisal—the Exchequer or the local authority? I know that a study is being made of the effect of high winds on these flats. I recollect the remarkable case a number of years ago of the collapse of cooling towers as a result of wind pressure and I am glad to hear that this question of flats is being studied. But how long will this re-appraisal of structures and study of wind pressures take? In the meantime, may I urge that everything possible is done to assure the tenants of these block of flats that their safety is not in danger.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their questions and for their understanding words about this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, spoke of a humble apology from the Government and I would not wish to disassociate myself in any way from those words. But it is in the nature of things that it is the Government who have to come forward and make Statements after disasters have arisen. When the noble Lord comes to read the Report he will be able to form his own view about how the blame for this most regrettable incident should be distributed among all those concerned in it.

On the question of the speed of the revision of building regulations and codes of practice, this has already begun. As a matter of fact, the question of a unified code for concrete building was already under revision at the time of the accident. Naturally, that revision has been speeded up and changed in direction since the accident.

At the moment I am not in a position to say who will bear the cost of reappraisals because I am not in a position to say how much re-appraising has to be done. It all depends how far we have to go into the history and structure of each building. When the Government see the extent of the re-appraisal work necessary, then they will be able to come to some conclusion about the costs. On the question off compensation to the dwellers in Ronan Point, I am sorry that I am not in a position to inform the House about that without notice, but I will do so later if I may.

On the question of winds, I am advised by the Ministry's departmental Working Party, which has now been set up to co-ordinate these appraisals, that the risk from wind is of a much lower order than the risk from accidental explosion. The Griffiths Committee rightly draw attention to the need to review the present standards of protection from wind. The British Standards Institution have been working on this for some time, and a revised code of practice will be published for comment early in 1969. Meantime, the Building Research Station has just published a digest on wind characteristics and will publish a further digest on wind loads in January. All this work takes account of the most up-to-date research and information, some of it later than that referred to in the Griffiths Report. We shall take it all into account in giving advice to the local authorities.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for the important Statement he made, may I ask him whether it would be possible to strengthen these buildings without evacuating the tenants? If the tenants have to be evacuated, what arrangements will be made? It is important that they should be temporarily housed while work goes on to make the flats safe.


My Lords, the question of evacuation must depend on the measures taken for strengthening, and these must depend on the appraisals which are only starting now.


My Lords, may I ask whether the gas used in this block of fiats was the kind that smells or that which is sometimes called odourless?


My Lords, as my noble friend will see when she reads the Report, it was the ordinary smelly gas, and it was smelling that night.