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‘We could easily have been dealing with multiple deaths’

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A resident has today relived the terrifying moment he was forced to jump for his life after a balcony at a block of flats collapsed under his feet, leaving people trapped inside.

Andrew Bleasdale had returned from shops to his home at Newby Place, Mereside, and, as he put his key in the door, he felt the balcony start to move.

A court was told how he literally had to jump “to save his life” – and a judge said it was “remarkable” no-one had been killed.

Blackpool Coastal Housing Ltd, of Abingdon Street, Blackpool, has been fined £50,000 and told to pay more than £27,000 costs after being committed to Preston Crown Court for sentencing for failing to carry out maintenance on properties on Newby Place and Clifton Street, in the resort.

Judge Stuart Baker described it as an “accident waiting to happen” and the court heard that over a five year period Blackpool Coastal Housing had received numerous warnings that there was a risk.

On May 29, 2012, Mr Bleasdale returned to his second floor home and had just put the key in the door when he felt the balcony move.

“He hurled himself through his front door. He looked back to see the balcony had gone,” said Sophie Cartwright, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive.

“A gas pipe had been ruptured in the collapse and gas was escaping.”

A woman living on the floor below his home heard a tremendous bang, as though there had been an earthquake, the court heard.

She and other residents were trapped in their homes by the debris and had to be rescued by emergency services and spend time in a hostel.

One said: “It was a miracle no-one was killed.”

Today Mr Bleasdale said: “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 the wall because of the slope.

“When the balcony gave way under my feet, a gas pipe also ruptured and I could see the gas escaping. I waited in my flat and I was later rescued by the emergency services.”

He said after the collapse, he was put into a guesthouse for several months and stayed in five different rooms.

“Newby Place was a good community. People were friendly and often my neighbours would sit outside their front doors chatting, so it is a miracle no one was hurt,” he added.

Blackpool Coastal Housing, a not-for-profit company, was set up in 2007 by the council and took over responsibility for more than 5,000 homes from Blackpool Council, which was the sole shareholder. The company had a 15 year management agreement in place with the council.

The affected flats were built in 1966 and a balcony problem had been identified in 2005.

The court heard that between 2007 and 2012, the company received expert advice from a number of sources.

In addition, residents had made numerous complaints which the prosecution said had been disregarded.

One man, who used to work in the building trade, found himself complaining about once a month, the court was told.

Yet, the prosecution suggested, the company had carried on as if no balcony problems existed.

In November 2009, a temporary structure was placed under some homes at Newby Place as a precaution.

The temporary scaffolding lasted until May 2012 without any inspection in that time. One person had even joked that bookmakers William Hill had set up a book to see how long the temporary scaffolding would last.

Miss Cartwright also suggested the company only properly co-operated with the investigation after a whistleblower provided material. An anonymous call alleged a cover-up, with knowledge of the structural flaw and also that some documentation had been suppressed.

Kevin McLoughlin, defending, said the company was mortified, dismayed and angered by the turn of events.

The company accepted it had made mistakes. One person had been dismissed and another resigned.

Far from turning a blind eye, there has been a heartbreaking missed opportunity, said Mr McLoughlin.

He said: “It may be with so many competing priorities, this one slipped off the radar. It wasn’t a case of villians and victims.”

Balconies had now been replaced with robust structures at a cost of £3.4m. There had been a major asset and cultural review, the court was told.

Passing sentence, Judge Baker said: “It is indeed remarkable, it is extremely fortunate this incident did not result in death or serious injury.

“The state of affairs could properly be described as an accident waiting to happen. It is one which could have been foreseen and should have been prevented.”

Of resident Mr Bleasdale, the judge said: “He literally jumped indoors to save his life.” He added there had been a failure by two senior personnel – a director and a manager – to co-operate fully with the investigation by disclosing all relevant material at the appropriate time.

After sentence, HSE inspector Micheal Mullen said: “It’s incredible no one was hurt.

“We could have been dealing with multiple deaths.

“It’s breathtaking that Blackpool Coastal Housing was prepared to take a prolonged gamble with the safety of its tenants at three blocks of flats.

“It is almost as if the company felt it could wipe the slate clean when it took over responsibility for managing the flats from the council in 2007, and pretend none of the problems with the properties existed.”

 
 
 

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