40 years of tower blocks campaigning
In October 1983 the National Tower Blocks Network held their first conference. The event: attended by over 170 tower block residents, campaigners, housing activists, architects, and community workers - marked the beginning of the UK’s only high-rise-specific campaign. The network was founded and run by women and had a broad focus, covering issues including tenants’ rights and welfare, disrepair, fire & structural safety, stigma, racism, and antisocial behaviour.
A smaller group had initially been formed several years earlier – the Newham Tower Blocks Network; a project of local charity Community Links. It was created in response to the tragic death of a young mother; April Merrin, who jumped from the 21st floor window of a Stratford block after pleading with the council and social services for a transfer, as she couldn’t bear living in a tower. April’s friends, family and neighbours contacted Frances Clarke of Community Links in the aftermath of her death and suggested a high-rise housing forum.
Frances and her small team began working with tower block communities within the Newham borough, offering support and advice sessions on several estates via a Community Bus. Teaming up with other local female volunteers and community workers, including social work team leader Elizabeth Lowe; the project gained traction and the network began undertaking in-depth surveys with tenants about their living conditions and concerns over housing and community safety. The scale of the problems soon became apparent, with residents describing feeling unhappy and powerless on a variety of issues. The network began running on-site activities for both adults and children including women’s rights advice sessions, pregnancy testing, sewing clubs and food co-ops – bringing about community action and collaboration, and reviving unused tenant meeting rooms and community halls in the process.
One such example was the Freemason’s Estate, which comprised nine 22-storey Large Panel System tower blocks. One of these was Ronan Point - which had partially collapsed after a gas explosion in 1968, killing five. Although Ronan Point had been repaired and the flats re-let, by the mid 80s the estate was considered one of the worst in the borough with virtually all households opting for the transfer list. In 1984 the network worked alongside architect Sam Webb to survey Ronan Point – and it was discovered that the block did not meet fire safety regulations and was still at risk of progressive collapse. Residents, together with Webb and the tower block network lobbied the local authority for rehousing and after much relentless campaigning, the nine blocks were condemned. The community held a ‘blow up’ party to celebrate the demolition of the unsafe towers and the beginning of a new chapter for the more than 400 families who were to be rehoused.
Freemason’s estate residents attend Newham Town Hall Housing Committee meeting
With neighbourhood participation being transformed throughout the borough; new residents associations were established, and community activities and drop-in sessions became well attended with tenants’ associations eventually taking over the management of activities and continuing them with momentum. This successful model was able to be reproduced later in other areas as the campaign began to grow nationally. A satellite office was set up in Sheffield to create links with communities in the midlands and north of the country, and by the early 1990s, the network had published numerous resources including a Tower Blocks Directory and fire safety check survey. ‘The View’; a quarterly magazine which was distributed nationally, featured stories and articles on a wide range of topics such as child safety in tower blocks, asbestos, and cladding, as well as bulletins on upcoming events and networking opportunities.
The campaign continued until the mid 90’s.
More than twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower tragedy, Frances Clarke, Liz Lowe and Sam Webb came back together once again and founded ‘Tower Blocks UK’. Tower block fire safety had come under sudden sharp focus and longstanding dangers were finally being acknowledged by landlords, local authorities and building owners, all of whom were now under government pressure to ensure safe living conditions for their residents.
The founders felt that without external scrutiny, unscrupulous building owners would be quick to sweep the lessons of Grenfell under the carpet and treat new recommendations as a tick box exercise. Spurred on by the injustice of Grenfell, they realised that the risk of further catastrophes should be tackled with vigorous campaigning, coupled with tenant empowerment initiatives.
The groups first project was already starting to unfold on the Ledbury Estate in Peckham where four Large Panel System tower blocks had been found to be at risk of progressive collapse. Tenants there had been complaining about cracks in walls for decades and had been ignored by their council landlord. Like the Ronan Point residents, Ledbury tenants formed an action group and began pressuring Southwark Council to evacuate and rehouse the estates’ 224 families. The campaign was a success and the action group’s co-founder Danielle Gregory came to join Tower Blocks UK as a project worker in 2018.
Tower Blocks UK continues to raise awareness and in necessary cases, alarm, over the state of dangerous and defective blocks throughout the UK. Many Large Panel System blocks remain at risk of progressive collapse and suffer inherent fire safety flaws. Meanwhile leaseholders find themselves trapped in blocks covered in flammable cladding, unable to sell their properties. Families are being housed temporarily in substandard accommodation – blocks that suffer from problems with damp, mould and leaks. The crisis continues and families are facing impossible choices.
Change is coming about far too slowly. Tower Blocks UK are campaigning on the same issues that were being raised 40 years ago, and in some cases – the same problems on the same estates! In September 1990 the National Tower Blocks Network undertook a spot check visit at Sporle Court; a 23-storey block in Wandsworth and noted broken air vents at the end of the communal corridors on many floors with ‘a gap wide enough for a small child to fall down’. Tower Blocks UK met with residents of Sporle Court in 2021 and were informed that these broken vents were still present, more than 30 years on.
Over 100,000 households around the country live in high-rise homes and many of these remain unsafe. Tower Blocks UK continue to call on the government to act swiftly to mitigate the risks; to install sprinklers, to reconsider Stay Put advice, to implement Personal Evacuation plans, to remove all flammable cladding and insulation. This must start with a thoroughly national audit of blocks. Large Panel System blocks must be identified and dealt with, and these actions must be undertaken urgently – before we see another large-scale tower block disaster and loss of life.
As the work of Tower Blocks UK moves forward, tenants remain at the forefront – with the aim being to amplify the voices of those affected. Positive policy change and legislative refinement can only be achieved with residents leading the way, from consultation to implementation, so a seat at the table for tower block tenants is essential when it comes to housing reform.
Recently, Tower Blocks UK’s ‘Life in The Towers’ project has been delivering citizen journalism training to high rise residents – offering an opportunity for tenants to tell their own stories, in their own voices, framing their own narrative. Resources, including FixMyBlock.org – a self-help guide to disrepair are being continuously updated to offer tenants legal rights advice. Network building is ongoing with high rise estates, campaigns, and community groups throughout the country and the history of Tower Blocks UK, along with precious stories of tower block communities over the years are being preserved in a special Tower Blocks collection at the Bishopsgate Institute, which is open to the public.
40 years on, Tower Blocks UK continues to call for change, for justice for the 72 who lost their lives at Grenfell – and for the government to act. There is still so much work to be done.