Norwich landlord jailed after tenant almost died in blaze
Ben KendallA Norwich 'slum' landlord has been jailed after a court heard a tenant almost died after becoming trapped in her city bedsit.Norwich Crown Court heard yesterday how Michael Billings, who owns flats, bedsits, houses and hotels across the city, flouted fire and health and safety laws, putting tenants' lives at risk.Ben Kendall
A Norwich 'slum' landlord has been jailed after a court heard a tenant almost died after becoming trapped in her city bedsit.
Norwich Crown Court heard yesterday how Michael Billings, who owns flats, bedsits, houses and hotels across the city, flouted fire and health and safety laws, putting tenants' lives at risk.
It is the third time Billings has been convicted of breaching such laws - and a judge said the case highlighted the potentially devastating consequences of such negligence. Today the Evening News reveals full details of his past and talks to existing tenants about his actions.
Police had originally treated the case as potential manslaughter. Victim Layla Skalli was given a 1pc chance of survival after firefighters rescued her from her room in Magdalen Street in April last year. Three others escaped through windows.
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The 20-year-old confounded medics by surviving despite suffering 80pc burns to her body but lives in constant pain. In an impact statement read to the court she said: 'There are times when I wish I had not lived.'
Billings - who owns an estimated 600 properties countywide - admitted 14 serious breaches of fire and health and safety regulations.
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The charges included failing to maintain fire alarms and failing to provide proper escape routes; breaches which prosecutor Richard Matthews QC said prevented Miss Skalli escaping before the blaze escalated.
Health and Safety Executive inspector John Claxton described it as 'the most horrific case I have dealt with in 31 years in this job'.
Miss Scalli's family welcomed the sentence but expressed dismay as the judge said he would review the sentence should Mr Billings, 55, of Ashman's Hall in Barsham, near Beccles, pay his victim �20,000 in compensation.
In a highly unusual exchange, Billings' barrister Simon Spence QC said his client was willing to pay compensation as an expression of his remorse but only 'if he was in a position to do so'. Mr Spence added Billings may not 'be physically able' to pay if he was jailed.
Judge Paul Downes said he would review the sentence if and when such a payment was received.
Speaking outside court, brother Andrew Skalli said this was a cynical ploy which did not demonstrate genuine remorse.
Delivering sentence, Judge Downes told Billings: 'You have been stupid and neglectful to the extreme. The effect on all of the victims must have been terrifying.
'What this case proves is that fire regulations and other regulations are of the greatest importance. The regulations are designed to avoid what happened in this case.'
Mitigating, Mr Spence said Billings, who has previous convictions for breaching fire and health and safety rules, had been gradually refurbishing and updating the properties in his portfolio. He had since brought the properties up-to-scratch and intends to continue letting them.
He added: 'It cannot be said any action on the part of this defendant caused the fire.'
Fire investigators have been unable to establish the cause of the blaze but say it is most likely to have started in the area surrounding the electricity meter.
He was a self-made millionaire who earned his fortune by becoming Norwich's biggest private landlord, lost it all and then set about rebuilding his empire from scratch. But along the way Michael Billings cut corners and took risks which resulted in yesterday's conviction.
Described by the Health and Safety Executive as a 'slum landlord', he owns properties across Norfolk. Some are at the high end of the market but to many he was the landlord of last resort.
Among his tenants were migrant workers and those on low incomes or benefits. Conditions went beyond basic, with former tenants complaining the properties were in a state of disrepair with little done to put right complaints.
While one of his more exclusive tenants described him as an attentive landlord who went out of his way to help, others told a different story.
One former tenant, Noel Yaxley, said: 'A few years ago I lived in a flat in a basement of what looked like a run down disused building on Yarmouth Road. It was an all inclusive flat, both with all bills and all facilities in one room. When I asked about why this was so, Mr Billings response was 'What do you expect for �320 a month? Buckingham Palace?''
Billings' unusual methods have attracted attention in the past. In 2002 Charlie King found his possessions, worth about �5,000 had been removed from the flat in Unthank Road which he rented from Billings. They were piled up in the front garden beneath a sign reading 'Everything free'.
Asked to comment, Billings said: 'I have absolutely nothing to say.'
In 1992, as sole owner of Billings Properties, he was forced to call in insolvency experts with debts of nearly �6m. Eventually he agreed a financial rescue plan with creditors.
While he was allowed to continue his businesses, it is estimated that up to half of his flats, houses and hotels were sold.
Billings was no stranger to the courts. In 1994 Norwich magistrates heard that lives were put at risk in one of his hotels because fire doors were wedged open.
He was fined �3,350 after the court heard from fire safety officer Keith Marsland who said that a fire in the basement or first floor of the Riverview Hotel, Yarmouth Road, Norwich, would have spread rapidly through the property, preventing an escape.
Then in 1998 he was ordered to pay �6,000 for flouting gas appliance guidelines at flats in Rosebery Road and Unthank Road - creating a 'potentially lethal' environment.
It all started in 1978 when he was a young high-earning electrical engineer on the North Sea rigs. Speaking to the Evening News in 1989, he said: 'I bought a property on Cromer Road - three self-contained flats. I paid �10,000 for it, put an advert in the paper to let the flats and had about 300 telephone calls. It just multiplied from there.'
He added: 'I believe we (landlords) come in for a lot of unfair criticism. I've got the most flats in the city and it's always the tenants that are listened to, never the landlords, about how their properties are broken up.'