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Marchers ask: Are our tower homes on brink of collapse?

Residents demand fresh testing amid fears construction scheme threatens the safety of estate

03 July, 2020 — By Sam Ferguson

A tower on the Harvist Estate in Holloway

CAMPAIGNERS are planning to march on the Town Hall to demand more structural tests at 20 tower blocks in the borough which they say could be at risk of collapse.

Led by the Harvist Estate Action Group (HEAG), the march in September will follow a double-decker bus to the council’s Upper Street headquarters where a petition signed by 300 of the estate’s 500 residents, opposing the construction of 24 social housing homes on the estate in Holloway, will be resubmitted.

Work on the new development has been temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus crisis, but residents had previously campaigned against it on the grounds of fire safety.

Last year, the Tribune reported on fears that building work could damage the existing nearby properties.

The campaigners now say previous reports on historical strengthening work shows the blocks could be unsafe.

Those in question were all built using the post-war “Large Panel System” (LPS) method, in which concrete panels were stacked on top of each other by often low-skilled workers, and held together by bolts.
LPS buildings have been compared by experts to a “house of cards” due to their structural fragility.

The same method was found to be at fault in the 1968 Ronan Point disaster, when a gas explosion caused the corner of a tower block in Canning Town, east London, to collapse under the pressure, killing four people.

Gas has been banned from some LPS blocks since then, including at the Harvist Estate, and strengthening work took place in the intervening decades to shore it up.

Independent housing researcher and HEAG supporter Hannah Brack, who has investigated the use of LPS blocks across Britain, has called for all those in the borough to be inspected again.

“There is evidence that the original strengthening work proposed by a company was not up to standard, and was in fact rejected by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in 1969,” she told the Tribune.

“But the contractor went ahead with it anyway, despite the BRE’s recommendation.

“It’s fair to assume the issues that caused the BRE’s rejection will be present in all LPS estates in the borough.”

“I think the cost of rectifying this problem has paralysed the council,” she added. “They don’t want to know anything about it.”

One member of the Harvist Estate Action Group, who asked not to be named, said they had decided to leave the estate over safety fears.

“We’re all for social housing, that’s not why we’ve been campaigning against this,” they told the Tribune.

“We just want it done safely, so that the blocks already here are safe.

“First there were issues with access for emergency services, and now we’re just asking the council to do the structural testing properly.”

In 2018 the Town Hall used structural engineering firm Conisbee to survey the borough’s 20 LPS buildings following recommendations from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Conisbee’s report on the four-block Harvist estate said engineers believed it had been “assessed and strengthened” to comply with building regulations.

But the report shows two of the blocks were not inspected at all after Consisbee workers could not get access. And only four flats in the two remaining blocks were inspected before the report was written.

The Town Hall also carried out earlier inspections on LPS blocks in 2002, when it opened flats in the Harvist Estate, Packington Estate, Six Acres Estate, Finsbury Estate, King’s Square Estate, Hathersage Court Estate and Ilex, Gambier and Haliday Houses.

But the report only shows conclusions for Hathersage Court and Packington estates, where no strengthening evidence was found.

Conclusions for the other estates are redacted.

It is understood the Town Hall has told campaigners it has lost the unredacted version.

Islington’s housing chief, Councillor Diarmaid Ward, said he was confident in Conisbee’s 2018 findings.

“We have shared Conisbee’s report with the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association and are happy to share it with anyone else,” he added.

“Harvist Estate also has up-to-date fire risk assessments in place, which show that all four tower blocks were examined in May and are rated in the second-lowest risk category.

“I have personally discussed these matters with the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association (TRA) and have attended TRA meetings with council staff, Conisbee, and the London Fire Brigade. I continue to work closely with the TRA.

“We’re committed to listening to residents on any concerns they have, and are happy to meet and discuss this further.”

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