Socialist Worker

Fifty years after Ronan Point tower block disaster dangerously little has changed

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2604

Ronan Point in the aftermath of its its partial collapse in May 1968

Ronan Point in the aftermath of its its partial collapse in May 1968 (Pic: Socialist Worker Archive)

Four people died and 17 were injured in the Ronan Point Tower Block disaster 50 years ago this Wednesday.

A gas explosion took out some load-bearing walls, leading to the collapse of an entire corner.

The rooms that collapsed were almost all kitchens—more would have died if the explosion hadn’t happened so early in the morning.

The decisions taken before and during Ronan Point’s construction bear a striking resemblance to Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment.

Government egged on councils to build tower blocks cheaply and quickly. The 1956 Housing Subsidies Act introduced subsidies for buildings over six, 15 and 20 stories.

The block had been built by Taylor Woodrow Anglian using the “Larsen & Nielsen” system.

This involved assembling pre-constructed concrete panels to build the flats. These are slotted together without any bolts, supporting beams or other fixings.

In another chilling similarity to Grenfell Tower, the cost of installing strengthening steel beams in Ronan Point would have been just 5 percent more.

The West Ham borough architect was questioned about why he chose this construction method. “If there was anything fundamentally wrong in the system surely somebody would have found that out somewhere,” he said.

It had been. Five years before a part of an army barracks in Aldershot built using the system collapsed before it was finished.

The potentially corrupt decisions that led to Ronan Point’s collapse are typified by the engineering contract tendering process.

Just down the road from the site of Ronan Point, flammable cladding is removed from Ferrier Point

Just down the road from the site of Ronan Point, flammable cladding is removed from Ferrier Point (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Normal practice was for councils to contract independent consulting engineers to advise on construction. That didn’t happen.

Taylor Woodrow, which owned the patent for the Larsen & Nielsen system, demanded the borough use consulting engineers Phillips Consultants. It was owned entirely by Taylor Woodrow.

A public inquiry was set up after that disaster. It found the building techniques and architects at fault, but failed to point to government decisions that strongly encouraged councils to build higher and faster.

Fifty years since Ronan Point things have changed, but not so much. Just down the road from where Ronan Point stood is Ferrier Point. It is presently undergoing emergency building work to remove flammable cladding that was fitted to the block in a contract with Rydon in 2015.

Rydon refurbished Grenfell.

Newham council initially denied Ferrier Point was a fire risk, but was eventually forced to carry out the work.

The way capitalism treats the lives of ordinary people with contempt has changed little.

With Grenfell Tower, as with Ronan Point, those responsible at the top of the state will wipe the blood from their hands unless they are held to account.

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