A CRIMINAL network with links to drug dealing, murder and smuggling has been given a licence to open a huge fireworks warehouse not far from the home of Jack McConnell, the first minister.

Police were powerless to stop them being licensed by North Lanarkshire Council, since they could not object on the grounds of the applicants' character.

James Nisbet, godfather to one of Lanarkshire's most notorious crime dynasties, owns the land on which the storage and packaging base is to be set up - the site of a former cement works in Main Street, Newmains.

Loading article content

He is currently serving a four-and-a-half year prison sentence imposed after Customs officers smashed one of the UK's biggest ever cigarette-smuggling operations.

The Northern Ireland businessman with whom he is involved has a conviction for illegal possession of fireworks. However, a special sub-committee of North Lanarkshire Council has granted him a licence under the Explosives Act permitting the storage of up to 200 tons of fireworks.

This is twice the amount estimated to have been in the warehouse which blew up in Enschede, in the Netherlands, in May 2000, killing 20 people, injuring a further 600, and flattening 400 houses. It left an entire working-class district looking like a war zone.

Community leaders in Newmains say the proposal to site the depot 240 metres from the nearest houses has left a climate of fear among residents.

They were unable to stop the licence being granted, but hope the development will fall at the next hurdle - an application for planning consent which will come before the council's planning committee in December.

A further 54 houses are already under construction 350 metres away and there is outline planning consent for a further 200 further on.

The site, formerly owned by Costain, is less than three miles from Mr McConnell's home in Wishaw. A spokesman for Mr McConnell, who represents the adjacent constituency to the site, said the executive would not normally comment on a planning matter.

The licence was granted to Global Fireworks, whose owners, Albert and Paul Baxter, are based in Carrickfergus, County Antrim.

Albert Baxter, a director and company secretary, was fined (pounds) 50 at Belfast magistrates' court in June 2000 for a breach of the Explosives Act.

Mr Nisbet, of Valley View, Horsley Brae, Overton, Wishaw, is 54. He and another man, Nashtar Singh, 35, of Billingham, were jailed at Manchester Crown Court in December for helping to smuggle up to 75 million cigarettes into Britain.

They were convicted of evasion of (pounds) 7m worth of duty and VAT, and were said in court to have formed the UK-end of a highly sophisticated worldwide criminal organisation.

Mr Nisbet is an extensive property owner, and his wife Patricia and son James run the family businesses in his absence.

In June this year another son, Stephen, 28, was jailed for life - with a recommended minimum of 18 years - for the brutal murder in Craigneuk of David James, 37, who was beaten up, tortured with a hot iron, thrown from a first-floor window and bludgeoned where he lay with concrete slabs.

Mr Nisbet's nephew, John ''J H'' Nisbet, from Craigneuk, was a drug dealer and victim of a gangland murder four years ago.

Soon after being released from a four-year prison sentence over a shooting, he had signalled his re-emergence with a fresh shooting spree, riding round his patch on a motorbike firing a sawn-off shotgun in the air.

Later, he and William Lindsay, his driver, were shot and their bodies burned before being dumped in a remote farm track in East Lothian. Their killer has never been brought to justice.

Mr Nisbet bought the 42-acre Costain site in 2001 for (pounds) 475,000. His other property includes a farm in Forth, bought in two lots two years ago for a total of (pounds) 192,000.

During the hearing at which the fireworks licence was granted - under the 1875 Explosives Act - an expert from the Health and Safety Executive said the storage would be safe, on the basis that the fireworks would be separated into different transport containers with a minimum distance of a metre between them.

A separate building will be used for fusing, packaging and labelling the fireworks, which would be brought in from China. He said that in the event of a fire the fireworks would burn rather than blow up.

Under the terms of the act, the police are not entitled to make submissions regarding the character of the applicants, as they would in the case of a licence to drive a taxi or run a public house. They can only make recommendations on security matters and on their advice it was made conditional that a secure perimeter fence would be constructed around the site, and - on the recommendation of the fire brigade - that fire hydrants be installed so that if a fire occurs in one container the others can be doused with water to prevent spread.

The Rev Iain Murdoch, minister at Cambusnethan and Morningside Church of Scotland, and vice-chairman of Wishaw and Newmains community forum, said: ''There is widespread local opposition to this development. This site is half-a-mile away from two different primary schools on either side.

''There are houses nearby, and outline planning permission for a housing development, a nursing home and shops. People around here are already being plagued by out-of-season fireworks ever since a major theft from a large DIY store.''

Repeated requests to speak to the Baxters' lawyer have gone unanswered.