An explosive cocktail of leaking gas and botched electrical wiring turned a Preston restaurant into a ticking timebomb, capable of flattening a residential neighbourhood, according to fire experts.
The China House in Aqueduct Street, suspected of having been a brothel and a lap dancing den, would have been destroyed along with dozens of neighbouring houses had a spark ignited fumes in the cellar, a council inquiry was told.
A gas blast would almost certainly have caused fatalities and shut down the nearby West Coast mainline, costing millions in rail disruption.
The restaurant, formerly the Lime Kiln pub, was branded a death trap and had its licence revoked at the end of a marathon nine-hour hearing at the Town Hall.
Councillors heard police, fire and environmental health officers had battled for five years to get the China House to tackle a catalogue of safety issues. It was described as “the most problematic” of all Preston’s 450 licensed premises by police who brought the action. Sgt John Lovick, of Lancashire Police, told the licensing sub-committee hearing: “In the five full years we have been working with the China House, no premises in the city have caused us as many concerns and been such a threat to public safety.”
And fire safety officer Michael Walker added: “This is only the second time in 10 years that the fire authority has supported the revocation of a licence, but these premises have created an inordinate amount of problems for us since 2009.
“This has been a rollercoaster ride of mismanagement of fire safety. It is one of the worst examples I have ever seen of flagrant disregard of legislation, bordering on extremely dangerous. We believe that this company has been putting profit before safety.”
Husband and wife management pair Wen Qiang Cai and Yun Qin Weng, who also ran the Shanghai Restaurant in Chorley, argued the restaurant had now addressed all the safety issues and should be allowed to keep its licence.
“If the licence is revoked then they will have no choice but to close the business down,” said the couple’s solicitor Lisa Yam. “All the issues have been dealt with and the premises comply with regulations. They should be given the opportunity to carry on.”
The hearing was told that the restaurant had continually failed to comply with licence regulations and fire safety measures. Fire doors were screwed shut, there was no adequate escape route for staff and customers from the upstairs two floors and licence holder Mrs Weng was rarely at the premises.
There had been suspicions that the restaurant - with five karaoke rooms on the first floor and eight beds on the top floor - had been used as a brothel and for lap dancing, said Sgt Lovick.
But when police, fire and council officers visited in summer last year they found the restaurant was using bottled gas for cooking, connected from the cellar by makeshift washing machine hoses which were leaking. The nearby electricity meter had been illegally tampered with.
Homes in nearby roads like Cardigan Street, DeLacy Street, Inkerman Street, Old Lancaster Lane and Shelley Road, Ashton, were all at risk from an explosion.
Fire safety officer Walker said: “We are not in the game of putting people out of business, but we have to ensure that all the premises in Preston are safe for the public. These premises were so dangerous that if a fire had started people could have lost their lives. It was that serious a risk.
“If it had exploded it wouldn’t just have taken out the building, but several other houses. The West Coast mainline was less than 200 yards away and, while I’m not saying it would have taken that out, the impact on the line would have run into millions.”
Preston’s senior environmental health officer Ian Massey said: “Who knows what could potentially have happened, what carnage and mayhem there could have been? Workers and residents of the immediate neighbourhood were at serious risk.”
Licence holder Mrs Weng has 21 days to lodge an appeal at Preston Magistrates’ Court.