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STAFFORDSHIRE: The carbon monoxide tragedy that killed councillor’s first wife

STAFFORDSHIRE: The carbon monoxide tragedy that killed councillor’s first wife

Stafford Borough Councillor Ralph Cooke. Photo by Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown.

A councillor who lost his first wife to carbon monoxide poisoning in a rented flat has raised concerns about changes to penalties for landlords who fail to comply with safety regulations.

Ralph Cooke told fellow members of Stafford Borough Council he almost died alongside first wife Sheila, who was just 22 when she lost her life in London during their student days. He spoke out as the authority considered changes to the penalties for landlords who breach smoke and carbon monoxide alarm rules.

Previously landlords faced a £1,000 fine for a first offence, rising to £5,000 for each subsequent offence. But this is being replaced with a maximum £5,000 penalty from January 2022.

Councillor Cooke, speaking at the latest full council meeting, said: “In 1969 I was a student in my early 20s. I was married to another student a couple of years younger – my first wife.

“We had a flat in London and one night we went to sleep as usual. When I woke feeling very groggy and disorientated later on that night, not even sure what time it was, I found my wife on the floor and summoned help as best I could.

“My first wife died and I very nearly died because the landlord had neglected to have the gas water heater in the bedroom inspected. I hope members will understand therefore why I’m somewhat hawkish about those landlords and other owners of businesses who may be somewhat cavalier about health and safety aspects like carbon monoxide alarms and inspection of gas appliances.

“I’m fortunate to have lived but I can bear witness to what happens when health and safety issues of this sort are ignored. Over 50 years later I still have flashbacks to that incident and I feel almost a duty to my first wife to speak up about this matter more widely as we are doing here.

“Diluting the penalties is therefore diluting almost the deterrent effect of those penalties. If it was up to me I would increase them, but I’m biased I suppose.

“I hope the officers will note this issue and have a look at it again. The maximum penalty is £5,000 but there is no mention of a minimum penalty. I hope there will be some review of these figures to give it a higher penalty to increase the likelihood we do not have offences.”

Councillor Jeremy Pert, cabinet member for community and health, responded: “I value you sharing that horrific time in your life with us and I am sure it is not without its pain. I also support everything you said about responsible landlords.

“In the main that’s what we have. We need good landlords to provide housing otherwise there would be potentially a housing shortage.

“Where landlords don’t want to work with us it’s right and proper we use every legislative tool at our disposal to make sure our residents are safe and we have a good safety record in this borough.

“We are not looking to dilute the penalties or powers. What we want to do is to bring all of our charges and penalties in line with Government legislation.

“There are new things coming along post-Grenfell and rightly so. That can never be something that happens again.”

Carbon monoxide regulations

Private sector landlords are required to have at least one smoke alarm installed on each storey of a property and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room containing a solid fuel-burning appliance, such as a coal fire or wood burning stove. They must also ensure these alarms are in working order at the start of each new tenancy.

If properties are found to be missing these alarms the council must serve a remedial notice on the landlord requiring them to be put in place. And if a landlord fails to carry out the work the council must step in and provide the alarms themselves, as well as serving the penalty charge notice.

Carbon monoxide causes and dangers

Carbon monoxide is a gas with no smell, taste or colour that can be produced when carbon-based fuel such as wood, coal, gas or oil is burned without a sufficient air supply. Causes can include defective gas appliances, blocked chimneys and flues, portable fuel burning heaters and barbecues used in confined spaces.

Inhaling carbon monoxide prevents the body from absorbing oxygen, which can lead to severe damage and even death within minutes. Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms include a flu-like feeling without fever, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, feeling sick or vomiting, sleepiness and confusion.

If you suffer these symptoms you should put out your fire or turn off the appliance, allow fresh air in by opening doors and windows and seek medical help.

Words: Kerry Ashdown, Local Democracy Reporter

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