Conley Thompson was found dead inside a 23cm-wide plastic pipe on the site off Bank End Road, Worsbrough, at 8.40am on July 27, 2015, after going missing from his home on nearby Underwood Avenue the day before.
At Barnsley Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday, principal contractor Howard Civil Engineering pleaded guilty to failing to prevent access to the site and admitted failing in its duty under health and safety laws to protect the public from risk.
The Leeds-based firm’s managing director Michael Howard was in court as it was told at least a six-figure fine is expected, due to the nature and scale of wrongdoing.
The court was told it’s unknown how the schoolboy became stuck in the pipe - placed vertically into the ground to house fence posts - but he must have descended into it feet-first, either by slipping or lowering himself.
Prosecutor Andrew McGee said the site dubbed Church View was ‘slap-bang in the middle of a residential area’ and the firm failed to act on evidence of both adults and children both ‘frequently and easily’ accessing the site due to inadequate safety fencing.
He said a relative and a friend told him Conley played there - as did other children, treating it as an ‘adventure playground’.
“In terms of the facts of the case, there is very little, if no, dispute,” said Mr McGee.
“The focus of the Health and Safety Executive is this very significant substandard perimeter fencing around the site.
“Either it wasn’t of a suitable height or indeed it was non-existent, or where it did exist it was poorly maintained.
“There is no evidence of ever being a proper risk assessment, proper monitoring, or proper maintenance of it.
“We say it was markedly substandard, and obviously so.
“They (Howard) also accept that although they did not know that children had actually been going onto the site, nevertheless they were - as all principal contractors involved in construction are - aware there is a particular risk that has to be guarded against in residential areas when it comes to children.
“That obvious risk was known to the company, and they failed to take all reasonably practical precautions.
“We say that those measures that were taken post-incident were in fact reasonably practical measures that could’ve been in place from the start.”
Defence solicitor James Maxwell-Scott said in mitigation the firm acquired fencing it believed met standards, but the site’s topography made it ‘more difficult to create a secure perimeter’.
It had also been hit by several instances of theft and vandalism weeks before Conley’s death.
He added: “The defendant hopes the conclusion of this prosecution will help in some small way to bring an element of closure to Conley’s family and friends.”
He said managers weren’t aware of children accessing the site.
But District Judge Naomi Redhouse questioned procedures that saw reports either not carried out or unchecked.
“There are no words to really express the loss that Conley’s parents will always feel,” she said, committing the case for sentencing at Sheffield Crown Court on May 5.
“When I judge that the cases I’m dealing with have such sensitivity or gravity, it’s the case that a higher court should deal with it.
“I accept that we mustn’t always operate solely with hindsight, however I feel it is appropriate for me to say that in the cases that I deal with, I’m often struck by how obvious the risks were.”