otnes shoppers could literally lose their head unless something is done urgently to make a town centre danger building safe, worried town councillors have warned.

The councillors fear that glass could fall out of the rotting window frames on a centuries old High Street building and decapitate someone crossing the street.

They are now writing to everyone from the police to the health and safety executive to spell out the dangers of the deteriorating listed building in Totnes’ historic Butterwalk – amid calls for it to be compulsorily purchased.

The councillors had wanted to put up metal fencing along one section of the Butterwalk outside 39 High Street to physically stop anyone from walking under the danger zone.

But in the end they decided to put up warning signs instead amid concerns that the town council could be liable if the fencing was vandalised.

Cll Ben Piper had warned that the window frames on the building were rotting as he warned: “If the glass slips out of the frame it could take somebody’s head off.”

Meanwhile Cll Tony Whitty said that the building should be “compulsorily purchased”, then “done up” and used as a community asset.

The deteriorating condition of 39 High Street was highlighted as long ago as 2000 when English Heritage first revealed that the 17th Century Grade II listed building had been put on its at risk register.

South Hams Council has said that it is investigating the condition of the building and that it was trying to contact the owner who appeared to live overseas.

However this week Totnes district councillor John Birch revealed he had tracked down the owner – a women believed to live in Kingswear.

He said she was currently overseas but due back in the country today (Friday). The Totnes Times attempted to contacted her on her mobile telephone this week but could only make contact with an answerphone message.

Last month town councillor met and recommended that the town council should put up “Heras Fencing” between the Butterwalk pillars outside 39 High Street to prevent people crossing the road at that point and running the risk of falling window panes or slates.

But when they met this week they were warned that they would need permission from the county council and the town council could be liable if someone chucked the fencing in the road and caused an accident.

Mayor Judy Westacott told councillors: “The safety of everyone who lives and works in the town is of paramount importance. While admirable I suggest that it is not our responsibility. The moment that you put something up you become liable for it. If someone picks a bit up and throws it in the road and it hits someone we are liable.”

The town councillors promptly abandoned the fencing idea and agreed to put up warning signs instead despite a protest from Cll Pip Paine who told them: “We know there is a danger there and it is up to us to do something about it. Why don’t we put the fencing up, stop people walking in the street there and keep them out of the danger zone.”

The town council also agreed to write to the police, the fire brigade, South Hams Council, the county council, the conservation officer, English Heritage and the Health and Safety Executive pointing out their concerns over the building.

Mr Birch explained that he had demanded answers from the district council over what action it could take to sort out the crumbling building’s future – which could involve issuing a repairs notice on the owner right up to the “compulsory acquisition” of the historic building to ensure its long term preservation.