Ledbury Estate Non-Profit Documentary Film: 'Cracks In The System' created by resident filmmakers Rainbow Collective.
The Ledbury Estate tower blocks (Bromyard, Peterchurch, Sarnsfield and Skenfrith) were built between 1968 and 1970 using the 'Large Panel System' (LPS) method of construction, whereby giant concrete slabs were bolted together onsite. There is no supporting frame and the slabs effectively use gravity to support their own weight and hold the panels together. These were originally designed to be no more than 6 storeys high. The Ledbury Estate was built by the Greater London Council (GLC) as part of the 'Morris Walk Series' - a contract to build 1800 flats in various inner London Boroughs.
The four towers on the Ledbury Estate are 13-storeys high and comprise 224 flats. Each tower contains 56 flats.
Southwark Council took over ownership of the Ledbury Estate from the GLC in the early-to-mid 1980's.
The makeup of the residents of the Ledbury Estate towers are 86% social housing tenants and 14% leaseholder owned.
Residents at the Ledbury Estate had been reporting various issues of disrepair to Southwark Council over the past few decades. One of the most concerning issues reported for many years were cracks and gaps, affecting the walls, in particular on the vertical and horizontal joints where the floor meets the wall, and the walls meet the ceiling.
Large Panel System built blocks are known to have a tendency to structural movement, as the panels tend to bow outwards during warm weather, opening up a gap at floor and ceiling level which presents a major fire risk as it prevents effective 'compartmentation' of each flat.
Compartmentation is the theory that each flat should be a separate sealed box, so that in the event of a fire, it would not spread rapidly from flat to flat. Southwark Council previously had a 'Stay Put' fire policy in place at the Ledbury Estate, and residents were instructed in the event of a fire to remain in their flats and await rescue from the Fire Brigade.
In May 2017, one resident noticed that the gaps in her flat were widening, although Southwark Council reassured her that it did not pose a problem. Following the Grenfell tragedy, the resident emailed images of the gaps in her flat to the London Fire Brigade who replied, informing her that ' the openings as they appear on the photographs will allow the products of combustion, smoke, fire and gases to enter through the walls and ceilings and access other areas of the building'
After the resident sent this information to Southwark Council, 24 hour fire marshals were brought in to patrol the estate's four tower blocks. It was discovered that these gaps affected most of the properties in all four towers. Emergency works were undertaken to temporarily fire-stop the gaps using mastic and sealant.
The issue was picked up by national news outlets, who put the resident in touch with some independent experts including Sam Webb, Arnold Tarling and Tony Bird. When the experts visited Ledbury, they were horrified to uncover a second major issue - the towers had a gas supply.
Following the partial collapse of the Ronan Point residential tower block in 1968 after a small gas explosion, the Government warned that gas should not be allowed in these types of buildings, unless they could withstand a certain level of blast pressure The independent experts warned Southwark Council of the dangers of the gas supply at Ledbury on 11th July 2017, but it took the council a further month before they finally turned off the gas to the towers on 10th August 2017, on the advice of ARUP engineers, who the council had commissioned to look into the structure of the towers. ARUP's final report was published in November 2017 and concluded that the towers required significant strengthening to bring them up to meet the basic current building regulations for occupation, even without a gas supply. The towers had been at risk of progressive collapse for decades. Residents were told they'd all need to move from their homes before major works are carried out to strengthen the towers and provide a permanent fire stopping solution to the gaps and cracks.
Southwark Council will be making a final decision in September 2018 as to whether to refurbish the towers, or demolish and rebuild them.
Ledbury Action Group have been involved with Tower Blocks UK, and have been looking at the other Taylor Woodrow Anglian Large Panel System tower blocks. Following the events at the Ledbury Estate, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to all Large Panel System owning local authorities, urging them to carry out tests to ensure their buildings meet the building regulations. As those results come in, it's clear that the Ledbury Estate is not a lone case. There are numerous other tower blocks of this type which also have been found to not be sufficiently strengthened.
Links to Ronan Point
Ronan Point was a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London which partially collapsed in May 1968 after a small gas explosion blew out one of the load-bearing end wall panels. As the panels in LPS buildings effectively hold each other up using gravity, the force of the explosion caused the 'progressive collapse' of one corner of the building killing 4 people and injuring 17. The force itself which blew out the panel was minimal, with the resident Ivy Hodge, who lit the faulty gas stove escaping unharmed.
Following the Ronan Point disaster, a government inquiry was commissioned and subsequently led to major changes in building regulations. Gas was ordered to be removed from LPS built blocks.
In the 1980's the British Research Establishment produced a series of reports to advise local councils and building owners to check the structural stability of their LPS blocks.
Southwark Council maintain that the records that they had, when they took over the blocks from the GLC indicated that the towers were significantly different from Ronan Point in construction and as such, did not require strengthening. This has subsequently been found to be incorrect.
Sam Webb; Ronan Point and Large Panel System expert has been helping and advising residents of the Ledbury Estate with learning more about their buildings and the related gas, structural and fire safety issues. Watch his interview here