I HAD just finished extolling the future of high-rise living when news of the disaster came through exactly 25 years ago. A tower block had collapsed in London. My boss handed back my report with a grimace: 'Bit premature, I think, old boy.' He never did show it to local councillors.
Like most young town planners, I was entranced with the idea of 'streets in the sky' sweeping away inner-city slums and solving homelessness. I came from those meagre Victorian terraces, so this was also a personal crusade. Then Ronan Point collapsed and everything changed.
A gas explosion brought down one corner of the 22-storey block like a pack of cards, killing five people. It was rebuilt and strengthened, residents moved back, but doubts accumulated about whether tower blocks were such a good idea. The final blow came more than 10 years later, when another inspection showed the place was a potential fire trap and everyone was rehoused again.
It confirmed campaigners' fears that the dream was really a nightmare of dampness, broken lifts and vandalism. 'People could be isolated for weeks at a time,' says Maureen Knight, a local councillor and magistrate, who was born and brought up a street away from Ronan Point, just north of London's Royal Victoria Dock. She had an aunt living on the seventh floor and was among the first on the disaster scene, helping survivors and going into the devastated block to retrieve valuables.
Such memories stay vivid, but after a quarter of a century no physical traces remain. Ronan Point and seven identical tower blocks were razed to the ground after Newham Council discovered this would cost less than rectifying the faults. Original residents were mainly elderly, so most have died since then. Everyone else was scattered across the East End.
Today the site reflects a modern dream. The problem was handed to Barratt Homes, which knocked on local doors for advice. Not surprisingly, people voted for 'proper' homes, but while their parents might have demanded council housing, this generation wanted a stake in their property.
More than 300 houses and flats have been replanted into the gaps left by the towers. Two-thirds will be run by housing associations such as London & Quadrant and are reserved for families on the council waiting list, but many of those involve part-ownership. Residents will gradually be able to increase their share until they take over the whole of the property.
Gary Webster aims to go a step further. The 30-year-old lorry driver has lined up one of 100 homes reserved for full owner-occupation. It will be a return to his roots in more ways than one, as he grew up next door and remembers watching the blocks being built. Many years later he moved into one, Merrit Point, with a girlfriend.
'I liked it, but I suppose I was lucky that we had no one living above and below, so there were no problems with noise,' he says. They were rehoused in the final exodus, but he has returned to living with his parents. 'They say I am getting a bit old to be still at home,' he jokes.
A generation ago Gary might have had no choice between his parents and the local authority. 'As a single man, I cannot expect anything from the council,' he says. Buying looks attractive, however, as he will be getting a furnished flat and cheap mortgage for less than pounds 50,000. 'I also think this area will take off when outsiders discover it and I will have a good investment.' And it is not as though he is moving away from home. The flat is exactly where his old tower block stood.
One of his future neighbours, Chris Taylor, remembers peering from the train as a girl at scores of blocks dotting London's skyline, expecting to see one with the side hanging off as she tried to spot Ronan Point. Most are still there today, despite the revolt against high-rise, as she knows from climbing endless stairs in her work as a community paediatric nurse.
But she had no inkling that her new home was on the site of the very building she was looking for all those years ago. 'I was well into the contract before discovering this was where Ronan Point stood.'
Chris and Gary represent an important change taking place in this kind of inner-city area. Ronan Point and its kind were heading for social disaster anyway. Just down the road in Docklands is another kind of failure - enclaves of high-priced homes colonised by outsiders with nothing in common with the local community.
By mixing and matching different types of tenure and adding financial incentives, both the council and the developer of the Ronan Point site have been able to satisfy most needs. Chris is a second-time buyer who has moved in from a neighbouring borough - but only because Barratt took her old flat in part-exchange. Gary is climbing on to the ladder because of a cheap mortgage, while shared-ownership and rented homes mixed into the scheme cement it further into the local community.
'There is no longer a stigma against owning your home,' says Mrs Knight, who, like many neighbours, took advantage of the right to buy her council house. 'That is one reason why locals are happy with what has replaced the tower blocks. It has helped increase the value of their property.'
Both her children moved out of the area to Essex once they married, because there were so few homes for sale at that time. Her son still works locally but travels in from Romford, while her daughter is in Braintree. This sort of family dispersal goes against the grain for people who have seen themselves as a close East End community for generations.
Blocks such as Ronan Point were meant to help keep them together, as they provided far more homes than conventional building. In the end, however, the price proved too high.
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