Why was unsafe cladding used on the Blackbird Leys towers?

This blogpost first appeared as an opinion piece in the print version of the Oxford Mail, on Tuesday 11th September 2018.


Time to read

2 Minutes


Where the two roads meet, formerly separated by the Cutteslowe walls

© Stemonitis - licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.


Residents have raised concern about Oxford City Council’s decision to retarmac Wentworth Road, abruptly stopping where Aldrich Road begins, reported by the Oxford Mail recently. An aerial photograph published in the Telegraph shows a striking line where the shiny revamped road ends, and the faded unrepaired part starts. This seeming boundary line has historical significance: once a tall barbed-wire wall stood in its place to separate the ‘rich’ side of the road, built for private owners, from the ‘poor’ side of the road, where council housing was placed. Blue graffiti appeared on the fresh tarmacked line. It read, ‘CLASS WAR’.


© Copyright Brian Robert Marshall and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


As a University of Oxford researcher who specialises in class inequality, and as someone who grew up on a council estate in a socioeconomically disadvantaged part of the UK, this issue resonates deeply with me. I decided to write this piece because the issue touches on an unease I have felt about Oxford’s City Council’s decision to use cladding which failed fire safety tests on the two Blackbird Leys tower blocks. At the same time, and as part of the same refurbishment project, alternative cladding was used on three tower blocks in other areas of Oxford, which later turned out to be safer.

My awareness of the different cladding used in Oxford results from being part of a research team that has closely followed the refurbishment of Oxford’s five tower blocks. The primary focus of our research was on a legal issue about who should pay for the works. However, as the research progressed, I became increasingly concerned about the quality of the works and the effect it was having on the flat owners and council tenants we interviewed.

Following the tragic fire of Grenfell Tower, all local councils that used aluminium composite cladding on residential high-rise blocks were required to conduct fire-safety tests. At first, the materials on the Oxford tower blocks were thought to have met the testing standards. Then further testing found that although the cladding on three of the five Oxford towers was deemed safe, the cladding used on Evenlode and Windrush towers – the two towers in Blackbird Leys – failed the fire-safety tests.

Work on Evenlode tower in its early (left) and later (right) stages

Image taken by and sole copyright of author Roxana Willis.


Notably, Blackbird Leys is in a more socioeconomically disadvantaged part of Oxford, compared to the areas housing the other tower blocks. Plowman and Foresters towers, which were fitted with safe cladding, stand in areas of average national affluence according to the government Indices of Deprivation. In contrast to this, the Blackbird Leys towers are in the most disadvantaged 10 percent. Hockmore Tower, which also had the safer cladding fitted, sits above the shopping complex of Templars Square.

While the location of the blocks does not necessarily indicate the socioeconomic status of those living inside them (Grenfell Tower stood within a very affluent part of London), the ownership profiles of the Oxford towers are quite different. In Plowman Tower, for example, approximately 19 percent of the flats are privately owned, compared to only three percent in the Blackberd Leys Windrush Tower.

In an emergency council meeting following the results of the fire tests, Oxford City Council representatives insisted that the different choice of cladding on the Blackbird Leys towers was a design choice and not a decision based on cost. Oxford City Council then acted commendably fast to replace the cladding on the Blackbird Leys towers, so now all five of the tower blocks in Oxford reach government safety standards.

But a crucial question remains: Why did Oxford City Council make the design choice to use different cladding on the Blackbird Leys tower blocks in the first place? And does it have anything in common with the recent decision to retarmac Aldrich Road only as far as the affluence goes?


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Willis, R. (2018). ­Why was unsafe cladding used on the Blackbird Leys towers?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/housing-after-grenfell/blog/2018/09/why-was-unsafe-cladding-used-blackbird-leys-towers (Accessed [date]).

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