Arson has been ruled out as the cause of a huge fire which ripped through a multi-million pound council house scheme on Friday.

At 11.18am Firefighters were called to Burton Road behind The Broadway in Debden on Friday at 11.18am after an accident caused a half-built apartment complex to burst into flames.

Before crews managed to get the blaze under control, a great plume of dark smoke visible from central London rose into the air which could be seen from the centre of London 12 miles away.

By 1.15pm the seven Crews had put the fire out, but not before the three-storey building had been completely gutted.

When the fire broke out builders were working on a £10m project on behalf of Epping Forest District Council which would have comprised 51 affordable units, made up of 17 affordable homes and 34 flats.

While its destruction is a major blow for the council’s house building plans, speaking at the scene leader Cllr Chris Whitbread spoke stoically from the scene.

He said: “Our first concern is for the safety and welfare of all concerned.

“The development is being built for us by Mulalley – a large construction company with a long and successful track record of building major projects.

“The council has several roles: we are the client and this is a serious setback for us and all those people we are building these new homes for.

“Bricks and mortar can always be replaced and we will rebuild these much needed homes for local people.

“For now, our thoughts are focused on the safety of everyone living and working in the area.”

Although it is not yet clear how exactly the fire broke out, passers by reported hearing an explosion and seeing a gas canister ignite in the flames.

One witness said: “There was a bang which sounded like a gas bottle exploding.

“It was a loud, deep bang.”

While no one was hurt in the incident, firefighters rushed to make sure the burning building was empty.

Crew Manager Ryan Fernandes said: “Crews worked incredibly hard to stop the fire spreading and quickly brought it under control.

“It was thanks to the great work of the crews that the damage caused by the fire is limited to the roof.

“Thanks to London Fire Brigade for their assistance, as well as Essex Police and Epping Forest District Council for their support.”

As the smoke rose, an 18 year-old pilot was flying his two seater Cessna 152 overhead.

After taking off from Elstree Airfield, Kathan Dudhela has checked the flight path to North Weald was clear.

The Uxbridge College student - who had picked up his A Level results the day before - took his hands off the controls for a second to take some stunning shots of the inferno beneath him.