Housing company fined over walkway collapse

Blackpool Coastal Housing has been prosecuted by the Health & Safety Executive after a resident narrowly missed being seriously injured when a walkway collapsed behind him.

Resident Andrew Bleasedale returned from the shops to his home at Newby Place in Mereside on 29 May 2012 when he felt the balcony move beneath his feet as he turned the key in his front door. He dived into his flat and looked back to see that the walkway had gone.

Blackpool Coastal Housing was prosecuted by the HSE on Friday after an investigation found that the company had known the walkways were dangerous for several years, but had failed to act to make them safe.

Blackpool Coastal Housing, of Abingdon Street in Blackpool, was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay £27,821.25 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to a breach of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

The court heard that the company misled HSE about its knowledge of the structural flaws that led to the collapse during the investigation into the incident, until documents were recovered from as far back as February 2006.

Blackpool Coastal Housing took over responsibility for the flats from Blackpool Council in January 2007. The council had previously arranged for a structural engineer to carry out a survey of the walkways after a worker noticed some of the fixings for the handrails had pulled away from the wall.

Further tests were arranged, which identified structural problems with the balconies at Newby Place and two neighbouring blocks of flats, and alerted the council to the need for major repairs.

However, Blackpool Coastal Housing failed to carry out any repairs, despite many of the senior staff who knew about the structural issues transferring to the new organisation, along with relevant files, when it was set up in 2007.

The court was told that the company eventually appointed a structural engineering consultant to design a temporary propping solution for the balconies in September 2008. However, his recommendations were also not implemented.

Blackpool Coastal Housing eventually started work to replace the balconies in May 2012. During the project, the site manager reported his concerns that all the balconies at Newby Place may be unsafe, but again Blackpool Coastal Housing failed to take any action.

Michael Mullen, HSE inspector, said: "The emergency services had to rescue several people from their properties as a result of the collapse, but it's incredible no one was hurt. We could easily have been dealing with multiple deaths.

"It's breath-taking that Blackpool Coastal Housing was prepared to take a prolonged gamble with the safety of its tenants at three blocks of flats. The company fell significantly below minimum legal standards for safety, and made a series of bad decisions in its response to the concerns about the balconies over several years.

"This was a potentially life-threatening incident which could and should have been prevented."

John Donnellon, chief executive of Blackpool Coastal Housing, said: "Firstly I would like to say how sorry I am to the residents of Newby Place for this incident which could have and should have been prevented.

"Mistakes were made which left our tenants in a vulnerable position. Thankfully no-one was injured but I am fully aware how much worse the situation could have been.

"I became the chief executive of Blackpool Coastal Housing earlier this year and I am pleased to say that the mistakes and failings that led to this incident have been fully investigated and the all systems relating to property maintenance have been completely overhauled.

"Our tenants deserve much, much better and I along with the Board and the senior management team are fully committed to ensuring that they receive the best possible service.

"A £3.5m programme of work is nearly complete which has seen the Newby Place balcony and a number of others with the same design reinforced to prevent further failures. The property services side of the business has been restructured to make sure we have the right people with the right skills working with the right systems to ensure BCH and its tenants never find themselves in this position again. I am confident that once complete all this work will reassure tenants that BCH has some of the safest properties of any social housing provider."

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Don’t be surprised at this kind of thing. There’s a real and growing danger of minor structural collapses of the ageing masonry parapets and chimney stacks that balance precipitously above Britain’s high streets. You only have to take a look up above eye-level on the UK’s highways at the poor condition of the upper levels of these buildings. Lack of maintenance and a lack of understanding of building facades has created many unsafe buildings. It’s a mircale that there aren’t more collapses; probably the sheer mass of some of these masonry features is all that is keeping them in position. It needs sorting.

By Look Up!

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