Over the festive period, a progress report on Lothian & Borders Police Force’s investigation into statutory repairs was published under freedom of information laws.
The report brings to light a range of concerns over the practices followed by the Property Conservation Department.
Among the main findings of the report, is confirmation that the Council used non-approved contractors to conduct statutory repair work. This practice was contrary to EU and national procurement regulations and it has been suggested that leaves the local authority open to potential civil action in the courts.
The police found that there was clear evidence to suggest that the allocation of contracts was made to those firms who were favoured as opposed to those who were on approved lists.
There is criticism about the lack of transparency on decision making, particularly since elected councillors ceased to be part of the repairs panel that oversees decision making.
The report also found that staff in the property conservation department accepted hospitality ranging from trips to football matches, rounds of golf, meals and drinks and, on one occasion, a visit to a strip club.
While the report is critical of a number of aspects of the system, police have found no evidence that criminal offences have been committed to date. There is, however, an acknowledgement of the need for a more open and transparent system to deal with property repairs.
One finding which I had not seen expressed so clearly before was that Council staff considered that it was appropriate to propose works to deal not just with immediate repair issues but to carry out works which did not need to be carried out for a number of years. This landed owners with both a backlog of repairs and anticipated future repairs – leading to huge bills when initial estimates were much more modest.
The Council recently held a consultation on proposals for a new system. While I welcome the overarching aims that underpin the re-designed proposals, I have real concerns over whether they will be achieved.
The statutory notices system was initially designed to act as a last resort, to allow the Council to step in once all other options had been exhausted. However it eventually came to be viewed as a first resort. The reasons for this are complex but, put simply, it comes down to the difficulties of co-ordinating agreement between various owners in a block to act together to ensure that a building is maintained. This is particularly difficult when owners rent out their property and can be hard to track down.
The proposals put forward by the Council outline interesting thoughts such as the improvement of information available to homeowners to undertake repairs, the introduction of factoring to the city and the re-birth of the Edinburgh Stair Partnership. What they fail to do, however, is identify how these options would be delivered to ensure that homeowners are sufficiently aware of the options available and how they would prevent a new statutory notices system once again becoming a first resort.
In the first instance, responsibility for the maintenance of a property should, quite rightly, rest with the homeowner. It is therefore incumbent on the Council to provide appropriate advice and support to enable homeowners to take this responsibility seriously. However, I am clear that the Council should retain a role in stepping in as a last resort in order to maintain the fabric of our built environment.
You can read by full submission to the Council’s consultation here and, if you are interested in finding out more about my work on statutory notices, you can read my previous blogs on the subject here.
Finally there is another Property Repair and Maintenance event organised for 28th February at the ESPC on George Street. It is free and will be a chance to pick up on information about how to manage repairs.