1968 – 1986
Ronan Point council flats, Newham, London
Early on 16 May 1968, a tenant in the brand new 22nd floor Ronan Point council flats struck a match to light her stove.
Gas leaking in the flat exploded, blowing out the load-bearing external wall. One side of the building completely gave way.
Five people were killed and many were injured.
A later inquiry found that the collapse was due to faulty design. The Large Panel System of building – where prefabricated concrete blocks were joined together – had never been used on such a tall building. The Building Regulations and Codes of Practice were out of date and risks had been overlooked.
By the early 1980s Ronan Point was occupied again and tenant groups were active. Newham’s Community Links had a touring bus which provided free advice. Tenant leader Sue McDowell worked with Community Links to establish the Newham Tower Block Tenants Campaign.
The tenants’ ongoing problems alarmed campaigning architect Sam Webb. Tenants could hear televisions or smell cooking in flats several floors away, suggesting the flats were not sealed. Building regulations required that each flat was sealed in order to contain fire or fumes for at least one hour. In a basic experiment, Webb dropped a coin behind a skirting board and it hit the floor in the flat downstairs. The flats were not sealed.
Later structural tests showed gaps between panels, some stuffed with newspaper rather than concrete. During a fire test in one flat, the blaze spread so quickly it had to be extinguished after only 11 minutes.
In protest at these conditions, Ronan Point tenants packed out council meetings, met journalists, and produced evidence-based briefings demanding better conditions. Many tenants were rehoused.
Ronan Point was demolished in 1986 and other structurally unsafe tower blocks all over the UK were reinforced or demolished around the same time.
Local people had pressed for change, helped by a trusted community group. The campaign included committed experts and used the media effectively. The campaigners made allies among the council and harnessed their local MP to write to government ministers, targeting their efforts at those who had the power to make changes..
Sadly, between Ronan Point in 1968 and Grenfell Tower in 2017 there have been several other tower block disasters in the UK. So the fight for safe housing continues, with campaigners demanding social housing in which lessons from the past have been learned.
In response to the Grenfell disaster, FixMyBlock was developed. In association with mySociety, FixMyBlock aims to cut through jargon and empower the residents of tower blocks. The organisations provide information about what landlords should be doing to keep tower blocks safe – and what to do if they aren’t.