AUTHORITIES were hindered by red tape when attempting to quell hoarding and anti-social behaviour at a dangerously overcrowded yard where a major fire broke out last year.

A Darlington councillor is calling for changes in legislation after the police, council and the fire brigade worked for more than a year to battle problems at the trouble-hit Shutts Yard.

In May 2017, a huge blaze tore through more than 100 fridges and other items hazardously stockpiled in the yard, which had been at the centre of a multi-agency investigation for months following complaints of anti-social behaviour, criminal activity, hoarding and fire-starting.

Eventually, the investigation resulted in the eviction of tenants from an adjoining property and last week’s prosecution of 45-year-old Tina Lumley over environmental offences.

Ward councillor Cyndi Hughes said the lengthy operation was severely hampered because no public body had the authority to intervene and resolve issues in a timely manner.

County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, for example, did not have the power to order the clearance of a residential yard but reportedly could have acted had it been a commercial property.

Environmental health officers and the police were similarly restrained in relation to procedures that had to be followed and which areas legally warranted their intervention.

Speaking on behalf of the town’s council, Cllr Chris McEwan said the matter had not been straightforward and that “due to the various activities taking place, no single agency had the necessary powers to act.”

A multi-agency approach was adopted and the police eventually used powers granted under the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act to intervene and issue the Community Protection Notice that resulted in Lumley’s prosecution almost a year after the life-threatening fire.

Cllr Hughes says legislation must be changed to simplify such operations when public safety is at risk. She is now calling for the fire brigade to be granted more power to intervene over hazards relating to private properties, such as hoarding and problems linked to homes of multiple occupation.

She said the authorities’ work around Shutts Yard had been hindered by legal red tape, adding: “It’s part of British society that your home is your castle but when the way you keep things on your property becomes a risk to the health of your neighbours, the fire brigade should have a bigger say.

“The fire brigade couldn’t force them to clear the site as it wasn’t a commercial property – I want to see a change in legislation so that they have more powers and can take action when they see there are issues that are going to cause a risk to health.

“The properties around there are so close together and the substances contained there were so hazardous that it could have been deadly.”

Keith Wanley, area Manager for Community Risk Management from County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service said: “Under current national legislation the fire service do not have powers to enforce action in a private residence only in business premises.

“In relation to this particular property I can confirm we have attended on a number of occasions and have worked closely with other partnership agencies to make this area safe.”