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Tower block gas heating under question after Arup Southwark report

After Southwark last month shut off gas in four buildings, Arup report raises concerns that similar high rise buildings may need heating replaced

As many as 10 UK local authorities could be facing the prospect of having to entirely remove and replace gas heating at specific tower blocks following the conclusions of a structural safety report commissioned by Southwark Council at four of its buildings.

Southwark is continuing work to permanently cease use of gas heating from four buildings on the Ledbury Towers estate after a third party report concluded that the blocks had not been sufficiently strengthened in the 1960s for their piping systems.

With the council in the process this week of upgrading its electricity supply to support the introduction of new district heating systems in the buildings, Southwark has questioned whether other councils may now have to conduct similar work.

Councillor Stephanie Cryan, deputy leader and cabinet member for housing with Southwark, said it had already been overhauling heating at Ledbury in line with recommendations from Arup while it was reviewing the buildings.

“We know this is a worrying time, but this report expands on what we already knew and have communicated to residents – that the blocks should not have had a gas heating and hot water system installed in the 1960s without adequate strengthening work,” she said.

“Of course, as soon as we found this out on 11 August, we turned off the gas, so the risk has been removed, and we are continuing our investigations. The wider question remains why the blocks may not have been sufficiently strengthened when they were built in the late 1960s before the council took ownership in the 1980s, and whether other blocks elsewhere in the country are affected.”

The authority said that the findings of the published study by Arup, which followed the Grenfell Tower fire in June, clarified recently raised concerns that insufficient work has been undertaken in the Ledbury buildings to strengthen them to use house gas heating and hot water systems.

Citing a lack of documentation to prove whether a gas explosion at the tower blocks may lead to progressive or disproportionate collapse, the council asked Arup to carry out physical investigations on two vacant properties at its Bromyard and Skenfrith House buildings.

The findings concluded that no reinforcement work has been detected in internal loadbearing walls or the external leaf of the external loadbearing walls, meaning they would fail key criterion in BRE’s Handbook for the Structural Assessment of Large Panel System (LPS) Dwelling Blocks.

 According to the report, the option to now strengthen the structures tested to accommodate gas was seen as “impractical”.

 The findings said that after the council shut down the gas supply at Ledbury Towers last month, it should not seek to reintroduce its use for heating and hot water.

 “It is further recommended that the gas pipes be removed, to ensure there will be no future use of piped gas,” Arup said.

 Southwark Council said it was now waiting for more information from Arup to help it finalise plans for the required work that will be needed at the Ledbury Towers buildings, though accepted residents may have to be relocated for its work.

According to the council, the structural issues with the gas piping identified at Ledbury were specific to the design of the four buildings in Ledbury. Southwark added that it did not have a gas supply in other blocks of the same design in the borough.

Ms Cryan said that it had now met with the Department for Communities and Local Government to share the report produced by Arup.

“At a public meeting last week I apologised to our residents for the distress and inconvenience these issues have caused, and the council continues to offer every support we can while we resolve the issues on the Ledbury,” she added.

DCLG last month wrote to ten authorities last month about specific gas supply systems that may have been used in their buildings that were similar to those fitted at Ledbury Towers.

The department added that it had met with Southwark Council to discuss the technical detail of the on-going structural investigations at the Ledbury estate.

“We have already written to local authorities with similar buildings to alert them to the issues discovered in Southwark and will continue to assess any wider implications for high rise tower blocks,” said a DCLG spokesperson.

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