Council probes 500 repair claims

Lorn Macneal drove down his bill after investigating it himself
Lorn Macneal drove down his bill after investigating it himself
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COUNCIL bosses today revealed that it could take at least two years to complete their statutory notice repairs investigation after pledging to examine every single complaint.

The move comes after a dossier, seen by the Evening News, updating the findings of the £1.5 million investigation highlighted an urgent need to completely overhaul the system and right any wrongs done to residents.

Council bosses have proposed a £300,000 crack team of six surveyors to deal with more than 500 complaints, which they predict will take two years or more to investigate.

Bosses admitted they have broadened the probe as 18 staff remain suspended across four separate departments that deal with private property and council buildings, which includes schools, libraries and care homes.

A sample 33 properties were each scrutinised, leading to an outcome so concerning that the council has decided to extend its checks to every property about which it has received a complaint.

The report, also:

• admits the value of projects subject to complaints amounts to many millions of pounds;

• reveals the property conservation department is looking at a net deficit of £3m this year;

• points out bosses want to resume non-emergency work under a strictly regulated interim service;

• highlights there are “potentially significant financial implications” of further investigations and recovery costs by residents;

• asks to consider whether the current legislation [the 1991 City of Edinburgh Council Confirmation Order] is appropriate;

• reveals some disciplinary proceedings of suspended staff have developed to the hearing stage.

Allegations of corruption, fraud and incompetence have been directed towards staff and contractors.

Council workers have been accused of cosying up to contractors, accepting bribes and favouring certain building companies for lucrative jobs, while contractors face accusations of hiking up final bills by as much as 20 times the original estimate, charging for fictional or sub- standard work and completing work that did not need to be done.

Services for Communities boss Mark Turley explained that there were “serious concerns” about those removed from their posts. He pointed out that the council would not be awarding further work to contractors they were worried about, which mainly includes contractors that are not on an approved framework agreements list.

He stressed that “everybody” who is concerned about the way in which their property was dealt with is entitled to their own investigation – even if their concerns date back to 1991, which is when the Act allowing Edinburgh’s unique statutory notice powers was introduced.

Mr Turley explained that the department would now aim to take a lesser role when it comes to repairing properties.

He said: “This was a service that was intended to be a last resort, but over the years it has become a service of the first resort. That has to be corrected. The emphasis on the service has very much been about maintaining the fabric of the physical heritage of the city, and this focus needs to be corrected.

“We need good quality housing. There will be detailed changes to the system, including clearly establishing ownership [of a property] and tracking ownership. Ideally we want owners to work together and take more responsibility for maintaining their properties.

“The door is open for anybody to register a complaint about work done on their property.

“We want to make sure we communicate fully with owners from now on [regarding work and costs]. We do not want big surprises for owners.”

When asked if each department under review was facing the same questions, he said “the allegations are similar”. He added: “There is no-one suspended for whom there is not serious concerns.”

Around 430 separate tenements make up the total 513 complaints, and around 12 cases are currently with the ombudsman.

The report concedes that implementing the new service, the Deloitte investigation, recovery costs by homeowners and the £300,000 for a dedicated complaints team will put a large financial burden on the council.

Mr Turley explained that there were a number of insurance policies in place for the eventuality that the authority will have to pay out to affected residents.

Investigations by auditor Deloitte and a separate probe by Lothian and Borders Police are set to continue for several months. It is thought that officers have also cranked up their investigation by employing a full-time team to analyse evidence relating to the scandal.

Councillor Phil Wheeler, convenor of the finance and resources committee, said: “Carrying out further investigations is a welcome proposal and I hope it underlines to the public how seriously the council is taking this issue.”

IN THE LINE OF FIRE

The city council has hired Deloitte to conduct its investigation at an expected cost of £1.5 million.

A total of 1592 jobs, largely drainage and roofing defects, have taken place since the investigation was launched in April to the end of September. In the same period last year, 3000 jobs were completed.

Last year, the property conservation department reported a net deficit of £800,000, which is expected to rise to £3m this year.

Of the total 513 complaints received, 143 were directed at increased bills, 95 question workmanship, 76 mention poor communication and 62 highlight poor management.

The team of six surveyors, plus one external team leader, is expected to cost £300,000 over a two-year period.