A company which owned a derelict building which was previously partly taken over by cannabis growers has admitted several fire safety breaches.

The failings came to light in the wake of a fire safety inspection at Ridgemount House, Peterlee, where nine people were found sleeping on the third floor, in October 2022, in what was described as a disused office block.

It follows a previous episode at the six-storey block in Bede Way, where police discovered the extensive development of a cannabis farm, at the time containing up to 500 plants, in different stages of growth, in November 2020.

One floor was used for the cannabis grow, including sophisticated heating, lighting and ventilation equipment, while the other was used for the sleeping and living quarters of the gang of Albanian men found working there.

Police estimated at the time that it had the potential to turn over £1m a year if it had developed further.

Read more: Prison sentences welcomed for cannabis farm gang members

Jail sentences of between ten and 42 months were subsequently imposed on seven men found working at the disused office block, but a seven-year sentence was passed on the man said to have bankrolled it, Samir Baghdadi, now 56, who was said to be living legally in this country, near St Alban’s in Hertfordshire.

Baghdadi received his prison sentence after being convicted of cannabis production, following a six-day trial at Durham Crown Court, in January 2021.

The man who boasted to the jury of being a multi-millionaire property investor, and therefore did not need to earn money from such an operation, was made the subject of a £304,028 confiscation order, at a crime proceeds hearing in December last year.

Following the October 2022 inspection at the premises, by County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, charges over alleged breaches of fire safety regulations were brought against the companies owning and running the property, Fifth Capital Ltd and Ridgemount House Ltd, and its respective directors, husband and wife Tarlochan Singh and Ramandeep Kaur, of Perry Barr, Birmingham.

They appeared at a plea hearing at the crown court via video link at the court on Tuesday (August 22), when an 18-count indictment, brought by the fire service, was put to them.

Fifth Capital admitted seven of the charges, relating to inadequate smoke detectors and alarms, lighting, fire exits, fire doors, risk assessment and one relating to the general fire safety precautions, while Singh admitted a single charge.

He denied seven further counts, while Kaur and Ridgemount House both denied a single charge each.

All the offences were dated as, “on, or before October 6, 2022”.

Read more: Cannabis farm lead figure and right-hand man jailed

Ros Scott-Bell, prosecuting, said, “in the public interest”, it was considered a case capable of being resolved with those pleas, and it was anticipated the offences denied would be, “left to lie on the file” at the sentencing hearing, in October.

But Ms Scott-Bell said Kaur would be dealt with by way of caution for failing to produce information when lawfully required.

Judge Kidd asked for the preparation of a Probation Service background report on Singh prior to sentencing.

The court heard the offence admitted by the defendant potentially carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

But Quentin Hunt, representing all defendants, said he would submit that a financial penalty would be appropriate, given the pleas submitted and the previous, “good character” of Singh.

He (Singh) was bailed to return to the court for the sentencing hearing, and Judge Kidd said Kaur should also be present to complete proceedings against her, on Thursday, October 5.

In the wake of the guilty pleas, Jonathan Smith, Fire Safety Manager for County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, said, “This prosecution highlights that while we seek to work with business owners to maintain fire safety standards in premises.

“Ultimately it is our duty as business fire safety officers to keep our communities safe.

“Although prosecution is a last resort, where there is a serious risk to our communities, we won’t hesitate to take action."

Steve Helps, Chief Fire Officer at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service said, “The successful prosecution, led by our dedicated Business Fire Safety Team, marks a pivotal moment in upholding the integrity of fire safety regulations.

“We have a duty to ensure that businesses prioritise the safety of their employees, customers, and the public."

Read next:

Jailed gang leader funded cannabis grow in Peterlee offices

Leader behind cannabis grow in Peterlee has over £300k confiscated

Cannabis farm found in disused Peterlee office block

Get more from The Northern Echo with a Premium Plus Digital Subscription for as little as £1.50 a week. Click here.

He added: "This case serves as a stark reminder to employers, managers and owners of similar establishments that they have a responsibility to ensure compliance with fire safety laws.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to safeguarding lives and property, conducting around 2,000 audits of business premises every year, which is almost four times above the normal delivery of fire and rescue services.

“We will continue to hold those who disregard these critical fire safety regulations accountable for their actions."