Paul Foot

Ronan Point – a symbol of all that is best
in Labour’s ‘moral crusade’ ...

3,000 people ‘at risk’
in sky-high death traps

(14 September 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 88, 14 September 1968, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT IS ALMOST a year now since Francis Taylor, founder, chairman and managing director of Taylor Woodrow Ltd., the second largest construction firm in Britain, burst into the headlines with violent attacks upon the unofficial strikers at London’s Barbican.

Night after night the smiling, confident features of Frank Taylor told the public about the ignorant thugs who were holding up the building programme of his subsidiary.

On television, Frank ordered one of the strikers to consider the interests of his country. And when the Barbican workers called off the strike with a march through the City of London, there was Frank Taylor, standing next to his brilliant black limousine, smiling patronisingly at the workers he had helped to crush.

In recent months very little has been heard of Frank Taylor. The smile is reported to have been wiped from his face.

Rumble, roar

What disturbed him was a rumble and then a roar in the early morning last May, when a section of 22 stories of a high block of flats in East London were tumbled to the ground by an explosion, killing five people.

Taylor Woodrow Anglian, the firm which had built Ronan Point, is half-owned by Taylor Woodrow. Phillips Consultants, the consulting engineer, which Taylor Woodrow insisted had to act for the local borough council, are entirely owned by Taylor. It was Taylor Woodrow who persuaded the West Ham Borough Council to build the newfangled, continental system (known as Larsen Nielsen), as they had persuaded the London County Council before them.

Immediately, the company rushed in with explanations. It was, as the Coal Board had said to the Aberfan enquiry, an Act of God. The explosion had been enormous. The distinguished lawyers who represented Taylor Woodrow at the inquiry tried to prove that no building on earth could have withstood that terrible blast.

Very quickly the arguments were exposed. A firm of consulting engineers, Bernard Clark and Co., were instructed by the government to investigate the collapse.

The Clark Inquiry revealed in a report described as “a summary” (perhaps all the conclusions would have been too much for the authorities) 19 shattering conclusions which have been wholly ignored by the national press, the architectural and engineering journals and television.

Here are some of them:

  1. The explosion itself was very mild indeed.
  2. “In our opinion there are weaknesses in the general design of the building structure.”
  3. “The building as constructed is incapable of accepting the consequences of a reasonably mild explosion which may occur due to many causes other than town gas, i.e. various forms of vapour given off from liquid gas available to the domestic market, such as petroleum, butane, also of cellulose thinners, paraffin, and similar volatile liquids for domestic purposes and likely to be stored in small quantities in [of] the flat.”
  4. The building was not up to standard fire regulations.
  5. “Progressive collapse” of one floor after another is an inevitable characteristic of this kind of building.

Resting panels

The report, and many similar statements from experts at the inquiry, showed that Ronan Point was kept together simply by resting the floor panels on the walls, and hoping that gravity would keep the building from falling down.

The 4-ton floor slabs rest on the outside wall panels – overlapping by 1½ inches. If the Wall is pushed out by 1¼ inches, the floor collapses, as do all the others above and below.

Any number of eventualities (many of them natural, and foreseeable) can push the wall out to that extent. Wind can suck wall panels out. An explosion inside the flat caused by as little as two-pints of petrol is enough to push the wall out the crucial 1¼ inches.

Subsidence in the ground; expansion of floor panels through underfloor heating; large numbers of people jumping up and down (dancing?) in time on the floor panels – any of these can cause “progressive collapse”. And if the sections which collapse are living rooms in day or evening time, not five, but 500 could be killed.

These new forms of buildings are not necessary, still less traditional. Traditional frame building can withstand heavy explosions. Even carefully jointed system buildings rule out progressive collapse.

Yet the Larsen Nielsen system, which has no tie between wall and floor, is the most popular with the local authorities. Altogether more than 3,000 working people are living today in sky-rise flats built in the same way as Ronan Point and liable to collapse at the slightest explosion.

No wonder Frank Taylor and the directors of Ready Mix Concrete, who own the other half of Taylor Woodrow Anglian are worried. But they are not the only people to blame for the Ronan Point monstrosity.

The government has from the outset, welcomed these new “streamlined” techniques, which so effectively kept down the cost of the already monstrously expensive sky-rise flats.

Failure to “tie” walls and floors, failure properly to observe fire regulations or basic engineering principles, failure to insist on independent construction engineers – all these add up to a cheaper building. And cheaper buildings are what the Labour government wants.

Ronan Point stands today as a monument to the technological revolution about which Wilson enthused in the Good Old Days, and about which the lickspittle Left rejoiced with him. Ronan Point is a symbol of all that’s best in Labour’s moral crusade.

Perhaps the inquiry will be forced to recommend that this particular monument be destroyed. But there will still be many others, perhaps with gas turned off (with the tenants; unable to afford electricity, making do with paraffin lamps and other “safe” substitutes), perhaps with token attempts to “secure” the walls and floors but all equally liable to tumble down at any time of the day or night, slaughtering their unsuspecting inhabitants.

The shareholders of Taylor Woodrow, whose dividend has been held at 20 per cent for the last three years, need not be unduly worried. Government and local authorities will ensure their firm’s profits for many years to come.

And most of them live in buildings which are either safe or heavily insured.

Last updated on 22 October 2020