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'Lack of resources' could lead to repeat of Ashford collapse

BUILDING INSPECTORS have warned that they will be unable to prevent fatal collapses of buildings resulting from 'cowboy alterations' without a significant boost to their resources.

The warning follows this week's publication of a Health & Safety Executive report into the 1995 collapse of a three-storey office block in Ashford, Middlesex, which killed four site workers (NCE 10 August 1995).

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions head of building regulations Paul Everall wrote to all English building control bodies on Thursday highlighting the findings of the report. He called on them to carry out more thorough investigations of pre-1970 open plan buildings with one-way spanning pre-cast concrete floors supported on load bearing masonry; and to ensure that work included measures to reduce the possibility of a disproportionate collapse.

But District Surveyor Association president Keith Hammond said building inspectors were already 'stacked up with work' as a result of low interest rates encouraging building work.

'It will be difficult to find the resources needed to carry out the level of inspection advocated by the HSE and the DETR. We can't do this without the manpower and financial input,' he said.

There are currently 4,000 local authority building inspectors in England and a further 2,600 approved inspectors estimated to work in private practice. Hammond said: 'We're going to have to employ a lot more inspectors on short term contracts to ensure the work is covered.'

The Ashford collapse happened during the demolition of non-structural blockwork walls as part of a refurbishment contract.

Four site workers were killed instantly when the building failed only minutes after they had discovered that structural columns on the first floor were founded on a single row of 100mm thick lightweight concrete blocks.

The structural fault originated from work to extend a single- storey building to three floors in 1970. It had been concealed by facing bricks and plastering.

Speaking at the publication of the HSE report, which had been delayed by legal proceedings, HSE chief inspector of construction Sandra Caldwell described the incident as 'cowboy building supreme'.

The contractor which constructed the defective columns, Wickens Holdings, went into administrative receivership in 1994. The Crown Prosecution Service was unable to prosecute because there was insufficient proof to bring a manslaughter charge against an individual. The HSE could not prosecute because the relevant powers did not come into force until four years after the offence.

Refurbishment contractor John Lay escaped criticism from the HSE. But the widows of two of the dead men are suing Wickens Holdings, John Lay and the structural engineers for the refurbishment, RJ Watkinson, for negligence.

Matthew Jones

matthewj@emap.construct.co.uk

For a copy of the HSE report Collapse of a three-storey building telephone (01787) 881165.

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