Fatal safety risks were only revealed through tenant action after Southwark Council ignored concerns for decades, writes BETHANY RIELLY
NEGLIGENCE and contempt of council tenants kills. We know this because of Lakanal House in Camberwell. We know this because of Grenfell. Last week residents on the Ledbury Estate in south-east London learnt that their homes could have collapsed on top of them at any time over the last 40 years. Residents are not only confused and upset by the news, but are angry at what they feel is gross negligence on behalf of Southwark Council, the owner of the four 14-storey blocks. Not only were their concerns about huge cracks (some so large you could pass your hand through) ignored for decades but when issues were finally taken seriously, Southwark continued to treat tenants with contempt, withheld information and had to be pressed again and again to take action. After six difficult weeks of investigations and embittered meetings, the council told residents last Thursday that all four blocks are potentially unsafe after they failed gas checks. Tenants can now choose to be permanently rehoused elsewhere or stay in the blocks till next year when work is done to strengthen the buildings against gas explosions. Hannan Majid, a documentary film maker, and his wife Danielle Gregory were the first people to recognise that the cracks posed a fire safety risk. Gregory reported this issue in June after the Grenfell disaster to the fire brigade, who confirmed that if a fire broke out in her flat it could spread through the cracks to the neighbouring flat. This meant that the stay-put policy — the measure keeping residents safe in the event of a fire — no longer applied. Despite the seriousness of this safety breach, the council took three days to send a fire official round and only did so when Gregory threatened to call the press. A few weeks later, residents decided to hold a community meeting in their Tenant and Residents’ Association (TRA) hall over the lack of information given to them by the council. Fire wardens had been placed in their blocks around the clock but with little information as to why they were there and if they were preparing for an evacuation. Majid explained: “We tried to book the TRA [tenant and resident's association] hall for the meeting and were called agitators. We’re living in that building, we can see loads of people with megaphones and walkie-talkies and endless water being sent there. “The first thing we think is: are people getting ready for an evacuation? So, of course, we want to hold a meeting!” At the request of tenants, independent surveyors also came to look at the buildings. They flagged a potentially catastrophic safety flaw that the council had completely missed — that the buildings may not be able to withstand a gas explosion. This issue goes back to the day Ledbury was built in 1969. Like many tower blocks of its generation, the estate was constructed using large concrete slabs made in a factory and bolted together on site. This was a quick and cheap method to rapidly address Britain’s housing crisis but came with dire consequences. Just two months after tenants moved into a system-built estate called Ronan Point in 1968, a small gas explosion blew out the walls causing an entire corner to collapse. Four people were killed and another 17 were injured. The fact that the Ledbury Estate is built in a similar way to Ronan Point should have set alarm bells ringing at the council. But bizarrely, the first investigation into the structure of the buildings by engineering firm Arup (the same firm awarded a dodgy contract to design the doomed Garden Bridge) didn’t even mention the gas or the structure of the blocks. Presenting their findings to a public meeting in July, the firm declared that they had found “no structural issues” in the buildings. At this meeting, independent surveyors Arnold Tarling and Tony Bird, the same people who had looked over the blocks, brought up the issue of gas. “I stood up and asked Arup’s housing director if he was happy that there is gas in the blocks,” Bird said. “He wouldn’t answer it. Of course, he wasn’t bloody happy! Arnold then asked whether the blocks would be able to stand a gas explosion and if the building would collapse. Again no answers. It just shows that nothing has been learnt from Ronan Point.” After the issue was raised, Southwark was quick to declare that vital strengthening works had been carried out by the previous owner on the four blocks to protect them in the event of a gas explosion. But last week Arup announced that their investigation suggested Ledbury had not undergone the works. The gas supply was immediately turned off, residents were given hotplates and told they could use the showers in a nearby leisure centre while they await rehousing. A statement by Southwark’s deputy leader and cabinet member for housing Councillor Stephanie Cryan read: “At every stage of this investigation, we have put residents’ safety first, and acted on the best information available. “We didn’t own the blocks when they were constructed at the end of the 1960s, but all the reports we found suggested the blocks were strengthened following the Ronan Point incident in 1968.” A council spokesperson also claimed that the problems could not have been discovered earlier because the cracks and the gas supply are two completely separate issues. But really the issues both stem from the structure of the building. Knowing the safety risks posed by system-built homes, Arup should have investigated the gas from the get-go and the council should not have denied that it was an issue. Bird stressed that councils must stop “making assurances based on no expertise.”
Heroic tenants’ residents and experts involved in the unveiling of the issues have expressed concern about Southwark’s reluctance to recognise serious safety failings at Ledbury until recently. This has left tenants to take matters into their own hands, going to the fire brigade, to independent surveyors and forcing the council to act by applying pressure through the press. Most of this effort was led by Majid and Gregory, who over the last six weeks have become a lifeline to Ledbury tenants. Rather than going to the council, many residents have turned to the pair for assurance and action showing their deep distrust in the council. “These problems only came to light due to tenant action,” Bird said. “Hannan and Danielle are truly heroic tenants.” Without the determination of the pair and without the added pressure on councils after Grenfell, how long would 500 residents have continued to live in blocks that could have collapsed at any point? Majid feels that they were ignored for so long because they are council tenants. “As part of my work, we go around the world documenting exploitation of child workers and workers’ rights abuses. What’s happened at the estate is a Third-World problem in London — shiny London. If you’re a council tenant, you’re treated like a third-class citizen.” Although a disaster has been averted, serious questions must be asked to determine how such serious failings went unrecognised for so long. Just two months after Grenfell, Ledbury serves as another painful reminder that ignoring the voices of council tenants can have deadly consequences.
Bethany Rielly is a Morning Star subeditor. You can chat with her on Twitter on: @b_rielly.