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The Ronan Point Scandal: Architecture, Crisis, and Possibility in British Social Democracy, 1968–93

Oxford University have published an essay on the Ronan Point scandal written by urban historian and friend of Tower Blocks UK; Holly Smith. The essay, which won the Duncan Tanner Prize was dedicated to the late Tower Blocks UK co-founder Sam Webb MBE as is openly accessible.

Abstract: Ronan Point was a residential tower block that partially collapsed in Newham in 1968, provoking a nationwide scandal. The Ronan Point disaster is frequently cited as a symbolic ‘turning point’ in the urban history of Britain, but it has been surprisingly underexplored on an archival level. It has been identified as a moment at which high-rise architecture was overwhelmingly discredited: a defining event within narratives of ‘urban crisis’ and ‘decline’ in late twentieth-century Britain. This article proposes that the Ronan Point scandal should be understood as a moment of democratic crisis, rather than one unique to the ‘inner city’. The disaster foregrounded a profound democratic deficit within the political culture of post-war reconstruction. However, this article revises standard narratives of the Ronan Point disaster exclusively as a moment of crisis to consider it dually as a moment of possibility for the British welfare state, and for social democracy. The scandal constituted a key moment at which anti-deferential discourses were harnessed by grassroots actors to challenge the legitimacy of technocratic expertise and to lobby for a more participatory reimagination of the post-war settlement. The article goes on, nevertheless, to explore how such discourses of empowerment would also be mobilized to justify a movement away from public housing and towards owner-occupation.

I would like to dedicate this work to the late Sam Webb. Sam campaigned for high-rise safety for five decades and generously shared his extensive personal archive with me.


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