HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc553-7W
Mr. Spearing

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he has taken in respect of the representations he has received concerning changes to the draft of the Departmental inquiry report on the collapse of Ronan Point; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Gow

The following is the text of a letter which I sent yesterday to the hon. Member:

RONAN POINT—Inquiry Report

You have put down a Parliamentary Question for answer on Tuesday 23 October to ask what action the Secretary of State "has taken in respect of the representations he has received concerning changes to the draft of the Departmental Inquiry Report on the collapse of Ronan Point".

On 12 October you wrote to the Secretary of State to ask him to look into reports in The Times which referred to this matter and to obtain the reaction and recollections of the members of the Tribunal of Inquiry. I understand that separately Mr. Sam Webb, acting as your research assistant, has asked on your behalf that he be given access to the working documents and other papers of the Tribunal. He has explained that he had access to these papers for some 3½ weeks in 1970.

I am writing to you straightaway and propose to reproduce the text of this letter in answering your question.

The Tribunal was appointed by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Anthony Greenwood, MP by instruments dated 17 May and 21 May 1968 to hold a public inquiry under section 318 of the Public Health Act 1936 and section 290 of the Local Government Act 1933 with the terms of reference set out in paragraph 1 of the Tribunal's report. In accordance with the usual practice the Tribunal was assisted by a Secretary and other staff provided by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The Tribunal concluded its oral hearings on 2 August 1968; its report was signed on 14 October 1968 and was transmitted to the Minister with a letter from the Chairman, Mr. Hugh Griffiths, QC dated 14 October 1968.

The papers of the Tribunal and the related departmental files contain no evidence that the text signed by the members of the Tribunal and its secretary, and for which the members alone were responsible, was altered between its signature, receipt by the Minister, and printing. In early working drafts of the chapter concerned there is evidence of changes on the lines suggested in The Times article but although some amendments are in manuscript as described in The Times we have been able to find no sheet containing the words "However in popular terms to make walls strong enough to resist 60 lbs sq. ft. is only to make them about as strong as the glass in a good window" deleted in a broad nibbed pen in purple ink.

But such changes were matters for the members of the Tribunal. It would be normal for a report of this length and complexity to pass through a number of drafts containing significant variations, and I do not think that it would be fair to members of the Tribunal, or proper, to attach any particular importance to forms of words which they decided during the drafting process not to include in their report to the Minister. In any event, deletions and changes made at that stage cannot be the responsibility of a civil servant as alleged in The Times.

The papers of the Tribunal form part of the papers of the Department and are public records for the purposes of the Public Records Acts. They have been recovered from storage in order to consider the matters raised in your Question and letter, and are now being assembled in proper order. It is unusual for access to be given to public records well within the 30-year rule, but, as there has been earlier public access to papers of the Tribunal, I have agreed that further access should be given.

As a matter of good practice in giving access to records, it is essential that they should be properly ordered, secured and catalogued. This will be done as soon as possible. I will let you know when the papers are ready for public access.

Mr. Spearing

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what reports he has received from the London borough of Newham concerning the condition of Ronan Point and similar tower blocks built with the Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian system; and what action he is taking in respect of such blocks built in Newham and elsewhere.

Mr. Gow

1. In order to understand the implications of the reports received by the London borough of Newham for Ronan Point and other large-panel blocks of flats it is necessary to take account of the events of 1968 and subsequent action by the Government and local authorities.

Background: Events in 1968 and immediately thereafter

2. In 1968 Ronan Point, a tower block built in the Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian system, suffered a partial collapse. The subsequent tribunal of inquiry in its report, "Collapse of Flats at Ronan Point, Canning Town" (HMSO 1968), found that an explosion of town gas blew out concrete panels forming part of the load-bearing flank wall of one flat. As a result, there was progressive collapse of the south-east corner of the block.

3. The tribunal made a series of recommendations affecting system-built blocks of flats over six storeys in height. These included measures to strengthen Ronan Point itself; measures to appraise and, if needed, to strengthen existing buildings; and measures to be taken into account in designing new buildings. In addition, there were interim recommendations about gas disconnection.

4. Following these recommendations the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government issued advice to local authorities in circulars 62/68 and 71/68.

5. The advice to authorities was to appraise all their blocks over six storeys in height which were built of large pre-cast concrete panels to form load-bearing walls or floors or both in order to consider whether they were susceptible to progressive collapse. In considering whether strengthening was necessary — either by providing alternative paths of support to carry the load, assuming the removal of a critical section of the load-bearing walls or by producing a form of construction of such stiffness and continuity so as to ensure the stability of the building against forces liable to damage the load supporting members—they were to provide for forces equivalent to a standard static pressure of 5 lb per square inch (psi) where town gas was to be used. Where it was not to be used, the forces could be halved, that is, to an equivalent of 2.5 psi of standard static pressure.

6. As far as can be ascertained, the Ministry did not ask authorities to inform it of the appraisals or specific action taken in respect of each block. It is known, however, that in many cases buildings existing at the time or under construction were strengthened only to resist forces of 2.5 psi and gas was not reconnected. Ronan Point and five similar blocks existing or under construction at the time of the explosion in 1968 were strengthened to resist pressures of 2.5 psi by the addition of mechanical connections to the joints between the flank walls and floor panels; and a structural screed was added to the floor slabs adjacent to the flank walls.

7. The report of the inquiry (paragraph 173) warned in specific terms about the dangers of storing explosive substances such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in such blocks as this warning was repeated in more general terms in paragraph 13 of circular 62/68.

Events in 1984

8. Following observation of small gaps at the junctions between non-load-bearing cladding panels of the facade and the floor panels in Ronan Point, the London borough of Newham decided earlier this year to evacuate the block and in March it appointed Building Design Partnership (BDP) to investigate this problem and to report on any defects and incipient or actual fabric deterioration. In April the brief was extended to include investigations of the structure of Ronan Point in its current condition with reference to structural stability, including resistance to wind, gas explosion and the effects of fire. Subsequently the council appointed a second firm of consultants, Thomas Akroyd, and retained the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to carry out dynamic tests and fire tests.

9. In July, wide publicity was given to the results of a fire test in an empty flat by the BRE. The purpose of the fire was to test the effectiveness of a fire-stop detail designed by BRE to fill the gaps between the cladding and the floors described in paragraph 6 and to prevent the spread of flame and fumes from a flat subject to a fire to the flat above. Limits were set on the permitted movement of ceiling panels to prevent unnecessary structural damage to the flat in which the test was arranged and as a safeguard for those observing the test. These limits were reached after about 10 minutes—the fire was deliberately very severe—and the test was stopped although the severity of the fire was beginning to decline and it is unlikely that further structural deformation would have occurred. The detail proved generally satisfactory although a small quantity of fumes penetrated the upper flat.

10. Nevertheless considerable local concern was generated by reports of the fire test and Newham council arranged for the results to be presented to a public meeting on 4 August which was attended by a representative of the Department as well as by the head of BRE's fire research station. Subsequently Newham's housing committee decided to continue the programme of tests, which was not complete, and, in response to demands that tenants of the other eight Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian blocks in the vicinity of Ronan Point should be rehoused, decided that priority should continue to be given to rehousing elderly and disabled tenants.

11. Investigation by the consultants continued and at the end of September both BDP and Thomas Akroyd submitted reports to the council, copies of which have been made available to the Department. These reports consider the findings of the investigations to date. In particular, they have found voids in the dry-pack mortar and in situ concrete in some of the H.2 joints between the load-bearing flank walls and the floor panels. They examined the question of the likely behaviour of those joints in the context of the effects of wind, fire and explosion.

12. Both BDP and Thomas Akroyd consider that Ronan Point is not likely to be adversely affected by anticipated wind pressures, for example, gales such as could occur once in 100 years, but could seriously be damaged by an explosion, for example, arising from the storage or use of LPG cylinders. There is no piped gas supply in Ronan Point and the five similar blocks. They also agree that there is a need for an effective fire-stop detail. BDP considers that in the event of a very severe fire in two adjoining rooms, the strengthened H.2 joint would be subject to "stress levels not previously experienced and therefore unproven". Thomas Akroyd concluded that the fire resistance of the various parts of the structure is in accordance with the structural fire resistance required for such concrete buildings.

13. The BRE is evaluating these reports and discussing them with the consultants as a matter of urgency. Its provisional view is that the risk that progressive collapse of the building—as opposed to localised failure—could be caused by fire is remote. Nevertheless, it considers that it is necessary to investigate more fully what, if any, measures are necessary if buildings of this type are to remain in satisfactory structural condition in the longer term.

14. The London borough of Newham, shortly after receiving the consultants' reports, decided to rehouse tenants from the five Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian blocks in Canning town of the same design as Ronan Point and three Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian blocks of the more recent revised design, over an expected period of about a year pending decisions about the long term future of the blocks and meanwhile to continue the programme of investigations and tests.

Advice to Owners and Government Action

15. Although difficult technical issues are involved, I am concerned that the extent of partially-informed comment on these events in recent weeks may be causing some local authorities and their tenants undue anxieties. I have considered the advice so far available to me and have decided to take the action set out in the following paragraphs.

16. First, I do not consider that the findings at Ronan Point to date need cause other owners of blocks constructed in the same or other large panel systems to contemplate immediate rehousing of residents or that they justify conclusions on the long term future of such blocks. Each authority must of course make its own managment decision in the light of all the relevant circumstances.

17. Second, authorities should consider urgently practical steps to prevent the use and storage of LPG cylinders or other explosive materials in:

  1. (a)all blocks ove six storeys in height built of large pre-cast concrete panels to form load-bearing walls or floors, or both, not designed or strengthened to resist a standard static pressure of 5 psi (mains gas should have been disconnected from such buildings);
  2. (b) any other blocks, whether of flats or houses, which do not satisfy the requirements of section D17 of the Building Regulations, which applies to buildings having five or more storeys (including basement storeys, if any).

The advice on blocks over six storeys essentially reiterates the advice given in the inquiry report, MHLG circular 62/68, the Home Office's Fire Prevention Guide No. 4, "The safe use and storage of liquefied petroleum gas in residential premises" (HMSO 1976) and the second annual report of the Engineering Institution's Standing Committee on Structural Safety (Chairman, Lord Penney) in 1978.

18. The advice on other blocks is a reflection of the fact that progressive collapse could occur in certain buildings of less than seven storeys. It should be noted that in 1978 the principal suppliers of LPG advised their agents not to make cylinders of LPG available to customers in blocks of flats and maisonettes of more than four storeys whatever their form of construction. The Department has evidence that despite these warnings the use of LPG heaters by tenants is increasing.

19. Third. the BRE is devoting and will devote whatever resources are necessary to investigate as a matter of urgency the problems highlighted at Ronan Point and to provide advice on structural appraisal and remedial measures as necessary. This will involve a significant input of resources by the BRE into the problems of large panel systems of construction. The Department intends to discuss the formulation of this programme of work with the local authority associations as soon as the immediate work by BRE on Ronan Point makes it possible.

20. Further guidance to owners of Taylor-Woodrow-Anglian buldings will be issued in the light of BRE's evaluation of the evidence.

21. The Department will be writing this week to inform local authorities of the action which we consider owners of dwellings of large-panel construction ought to take now, to give further details of the action which might be taken now, to give further details of the action which might be taken on LPG, and to ask for any technical reports and information which authorities may have on large-panel buildings in their ownership. A copy of the Department's letter will be placed in the Library.