The owners of an upmarket ‘gated’ spa resort in Torquay have been fined £22,500 after serious fire safety regulation breaches were discovered following a fire last September according to Court

Concerns about the standards of fire safety were raised after a fire at the luxury Grade II-listed building in Lower Warberry Road, on the site of the former Bishop’s Court Hotel, which had been converted into flats and apartments in December 2010.

The fire was started after a suitcase was deliberately placed on a lighted hob in a first floor flat after a dispute between occupants. However, when the fire service attended, they were concerned about the lack of fire safety standards in the flats and a prohibition notice was served by the fire service and Torbay Council.

Seven flats and 11 apartments remain unoccupied as the company have been unable to afford to bring them back up to standard. Residents still remain in 14 other rooms.

Latona Luxury Limited, the owners, had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to four breaches of fire safety regulations, those being a lack of a suitable fire safety risk assessment, failure to ensure sufficient working fire detection systems, failure to ensure a safe evacuation system and an insufficient maintenance system.

Prosecuting, David Sapiecha, said: “On September 19 a fire broke out in a first floor flat. There was a dispute and a suitcase was put on a hob with the heat turned up. It was a significant fire and caused significant damage to the flat and next-door residents were not alerted until there was smoke in their room.

“The alarms did not sound automatically or when the fire service broke the emergency alarm. The alarms should have sounded.”

Mr Sapiecha told the court that the fire service had found fire extinguishers had not been tested for several years, cupboards with combustible material inside were left open, fire doors were not up to the requisite standard, the emergency lighting didn’t work, the fire alarms did not go off, and that a risk assessment had not been undertaken since July 2011.

He said: “Clearly, there was insufficient maintenance carried out. As it happened, the fire wasn’t significant, but the potential was there. Nothing was done to protect people from a dangerous fire. This was a serious breach.”

Mitigating, Bernand Thorogood, said that the fire didn’t occur because of breaches of health and safety, the directors of the company believed that there was no risk to safety as they lived on-site, and it was a power surge that had caused the alarm detection system to fail.

He said: “At the time of the fire they were not aware that had been a power surge and ten properties, included the one owned by Latona, had been affected by the surge.

“There was a system of inspections and the logbook shows regular entries until August 14, but there had been an unacceptable delay as the maintenance man had been on holiday.”

He added that Latona had spent thousands of pounds on improvements as a result of the issues that were mentioned in the 2010 fire risk assessment, including on the fire alarm system, but the power surge ‘knocked it out’.

The prosecution had argued that the regulation breaches were a desire to save money as the company was in debt, but Judge Erik Salomonsen agreed that there had been no ‘ill-will’ on the part of Latona.

Sentencing the company at Exeter Crown Court on Monday, Judge Salomonsen said: “The fire was not a product of the breach of the regulations. The breaches became apparent as a result of the fire. There was no ill-will on the part of the company.

“I accept this was not a wilful refusal to undertake work but there was a failure to do so. The directors were seeking to keep the business afloat and in consequence may have taken their eye of this important feature.

“Public safety is of course paramount and whether the company ran a hotel or residential accommodation, it is essential that regulations should be met in every respect.

“If a company cannot meet its commitments, it should simply not trade, rather than put the public at risk.

He fined Latona Luxury Limited £22,500 for the four breaches and ordered them to pay costs of £6,242, as well as the appropriate victim surcharge.

The court was also told that one half of the 2.6 acre grounds are up for sale with planning consent having been granted for 18 houses, with Latona hoping that a sale will help to pay-off bank loans that total around £2million.