A company set up by Blackpool Council to look after its social housing was guilty of a catalogue of ineptitude and failure to heed warnings balconies on its properties were in danger of collapse.
And when finally they gave way one resident diving from his falling balcony back into his second floor flat.
Others had to be rescued by firefighters after the collapse on Newby Place, Mereside cracked a gas main.
The cost of repairing all the balconies designed in the same way has been put at £3.5m all because Blackpool Coastal Housing – formed in 2007 as a stand alone company by Blackpool Council to manage its 5,000-plus properties – would not heed warnings.
One resident wrote a letter of complaint once a month for five years but still nothing was done, Blackpool Magistrates heard.
Disastrously, the company added extra metal rails to the balconies causing increased weight for them to bear.
And when scaffolding was put in place around the flats it was there for two years without any work being done.
Blackpool Coastal Housing pleaded guilty to failing in its duty towards residents and putting them at risk of injury or death when it appeared before District Judge Roger Lowe sitting at Blackpool Magistrates Court.
He agreed to an application from Health and Safety prosecutor Craig Morris that the company should be sentenced at Crown Court where unlimited fines were available instead of the £20,000 maximum at magistrates’ level.
The company’s barrister Dewi ap Thomas argued against that saying larger fines would have to be paid for by increases in rent for residents as this was the firm’s only source of income.
The judge sent the case to the higher court stating: “There was reckless disregard for the safety of residents the aggravating features of this case are so overwhelming.
“It was a miracle that no one was seriously injured or killed.”
Mr Morris said when the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) started its investigation into the incident which took place in May 2012 they asked for all paperwork on the flats from the company and local authority.
He said: “They were told they had everything but then a whistleblower contacted the HSE and told them material had been held back. It was only then that relevant information was handed over.”
The flats were built in the 1960’s and Mr Morris told how one elderly resident returned from the shops and went out onto his balcony only to feel it move beneath him.
The man then had to leap back into his flat as the balcony crashed to the ground hitting other balconies below
He said the sound was described as like an earthquake by one woman resident who was rescued by firemen.
The prosecutor said that it had been back in 2007 that people said the balconies were clearly falling away from the rest of the building. About forty flats in Newby Place were affected. Senior officers of the company saw what was happening with their own eyes but did nothing,” he said. “The balconies had a slope to them. Even when new residents were shown around and pointed out what they could see they were told by staff there was nothing wrong.
“People wrote letter after letter one man wrote every month for five years but there was a catalogue of ineptitude and a failure to heed warnings. It was only good fortune that no one was killed.”
He said there was a basic design flaw in the steel reinforcements.
The judge heard although the company was supposed to be non profit making its last audited accounts showed a £220,000 surplus and revealed £125,000 had been set aside for fines and legal costs for the case.
Mr ap Thomas said: “I wish to sincerely apologise to the residents for what happened. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like that day.
“It is also right that full disclosure was not given to the HSE at the start of their inquiry and individuals have been dealt with because of this. This is a not for profit company so it is the people - their tenants - who will have to bear the burden of any financial punishment because it is from where BCH receives its funds. There is no insurance in place. Remedial action for all balconies has taken place.”
The firm will appear for sentence at Preston Crown Court on May 21.
Blackpool Council declined to comment until after the crown court hearing.