Failure to renovate building nearly kills resident
We often in these columns highlight cases where contractors have failed to abide by accepted building health and safety norms: on rarer occasions we have to report on cases where the client is totally at fault. This is one such.
The background is that Blackpool Borough Council outsourced the management of some blocks of council flats, including Newby Place, in January 2007 to Blackpool Coastal Housing Ltd.
It was known by the local authority that there were problems with this block. A structural engineer had been commissioned (pre-2007) to survey and report on the condition of the walkways of the external balconies. This arose from a worker who reported that some of the handrails had parted from the wall of the building.
Following this survey and subsequent testing, it became clear that there were structural weaknesses in the balconies at Newby Place as well as two other blocks of flats, and major repairs were required to them.
Management company failed to act
When Blackpool Coastal Housing was created and took over the management duties, many of its senior staff came from the Council; they had the previous paperwork; and they were well aware of the dangerous situation. Nevertheless, they did not take the required action. The timescale then proceeded thus:
- September 2008: a structural engineering consultant was finally briefed by Blackpool Coastal Housing to design an interim support system for the affected balconies – but even then, they failed to act on his proposals.
- March 2009: temporary scaffolding was fitted under some of the balconies: it was probably insufficiently strong to prevent them from falling.
- May 2012: work began to replace some balconies, over 5 years after the problem became known. The site manager reported to his superiors that all Newby Place’s balconies might need replacement, but the company failed to act.
- 29 May 2012: one of the residents, Andrew Bleasedale, felt the 2nd floor balcony outside his door giving way as he went to enter his door. He flung himself inside just as the balcony fell. His flat was not one of those whose balconies were being replaced.
Mr Bleasedale said of the incident:
I made complaints about the condition of the balcony several times before the collapse as it was leaning to the extent that I felt the need to walk near to the wall because of the slope. When the balcony fell away from under my feet, a gas pipe also ruptured and I could see gas escaping. I waited in my flat and was later rescued by the emergency services.
Newby Place was a good community. People were friendly with each other and often my neighbours would sit outside their front doors chatting, so it’s a miracle no one was hurt.
The HSE inspector’s comment was:
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.
Worse still, when HSE carried out their investigation into the affair, the company covered up its awareness of the structural problems in the block. Then more documents came to light; it was revealed that the issues were being documented as early as February 2006.
The result was that at Preston Crown Court, Blackpool Coastal Housing Ltd of Abingdon Street, Blackpool, received a fine of £50,000 plus £27,821 of costs.
The case highlights the need for proper health and safety measures in the management of the country’s housing stock – a lot of post-war properties are 50 or 60 years old and are in need of major refurbishment or replacement. Specialist building sector health and safety consultants like McCormack Benson Health & Safety can play an important role in flagging up safety issues on refurbishment projects, in liaison with engineers – but the client (and the principal contractors) must listen to their advice and act decisively when structural faults need to be addressed.