AN INDEBTED ex-snooker club owner put patrons’ safety at risk by using gas heaters which were seen spouting flames around players’ legs.

Stephen Ankers, the former owner of Farnworth Snooker Club, was found to be using two “dangerous” heaters as he battled to keep the struggling hall in business.

Despite warnings from council officers, the 59-year-old flouted a prohibition order and committed health and safety offences by attempting to heat the building with the two heaters when his gas supply was cut off.

Bolton Crown Court heard how the Church Street snooker hall had been a family business owned by Ankers’ father until his death. It was then taken over by the defendant who mortgaged it from his stepmother.

Over the years the club had fallen out of popularity and visitor numbers dwindled, the court heard, putting financial strain on Ankers.

Martin Pizzey, defending, said: “The club had its heyday. It was a community asset, it was well attended and it was popular.

“But over the passage of time the sport and asset became less popular and there was a decline.”

The worsening situation meant the club cost Ankers “more to run it than he could make and he was trying to make ends meet,” Mr Pizzey added.

These problems were then made worse by the snooker hall’s demands for gas heating.

After wracking up £10,000 in unpaid gas bills, Ankers’ energy provider, Eon, shut off his gas supply, forcing him to find alternative means of heating the building.

He borrowed two gas heaters, which were in a “poor condition and visibly damaged” which he located one by the bar and the other by the rear of the property, with gas piped through the main hall area.

In December 2017 the snooker club was visited by health and safety officers from Bolton Council who found that flames from the gas heaters were “protruding very close to people’s legs”, and warned Ankers to stop using them until he could prove they were safe.

On a second visit a few weeks later the officers noted the defendant had 141kg of propane gas in the building for the heaters ­— exceeding the safe amount allowed.

They called the national gas emergency service, Cadent, who advised that the propane gas be turned off and not be used. However Ankers refused to believe that the man was “an expert” and the health and safety officers issued him with a prohibition order for the heaters’ use.

In February the council officers were tipped off that the heaters were again being used at the club.

When they came to inspect the club Ankers told them that he “had been forced to use them for a period of a few weeks,” Mr Pizzey told the court. And on February 17, 2017, they launched a prosecution against him.

Ankers, of Longcauseway, Farnworth, pleaded guilty to a breach of Section 33 (1)(g) of the Health and Safety at Work Act at an earlier court hearing.

At a sentencing hearing on Thursday he told the court that he sold Farnworth Snooker Club around 18 months ago, making £80,000 from the sale.

Ankers then used £65,000 to buy his current flat in Longcauseway and has since been living off the left-over cash.

However he now only has around £3,000 left, he said, and has no other source of income and has not claimed benefits.

Aside from two guitars from his music collection, estimated to be worth £2,000 each, Ankers told the court he has no valuables worth more than £500, but still owes thousands of pounds for outstanding utilities and other bills.

He said: “I have more debts than I have money. It was probably not a good idea to buy the club.”

In mitigation both Mr Pizzey and Virginia Hayton, prosecuting, described Ankers as a “man of good character”.

Sentencing Ankers to 135 hours unpaid work and £2,026.86 in costs, Judge Timothy Stead said: “Commercially it looks like you tried to carry it on longer than you should have done and got into financial difficulties.”

Judge Smith

added: “No harm was done to persons or property, but if it had happened it could have been very serious indeed. In fact as serious as one could imagine in these circumstances.”