Alastair Rankin: Building trust in troubled repairs service

The repairs crisis has damaged the city's reputation

The repairs crisis has damaged the city's reputation

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THE concerns over how the city council has managed its property conservation service have been widely reported. For the sake of clarity, this is the part of the council that has issued statutory repair notices on private properties and in many cases was involved in organising the work. It was separate from the property care service that managed the maintenance of council buildings.

However, both have been investigated by the council and the police, and in the case of property care there are ongoing criminal proceedings. Both have also had significant management changes and disciplinary action has resulted in staff being dismissed. This disciplinary action is continuing, as is other work to deal with the very serious allegations made. I want to assure the public that this new coalition administration will continue to take firm action to resolve issues around the council’s property services. Indeed, it is one of the coalition’s pledges to the people of the city that we will do exactly that.

There will be more reports on how we resolve the issues of the past, but we are now at a stage of looking to how we might provide a new service for helping to maintain a high quality of housing in the city, as well as protecting the public from dangerous buildings.

Unlike other cities, Edinburgh has no strong history of factoring, or other shared arrangements, for keeping its tenements and flats safe and secure. This is partly what gave rise to the statutory repairs system. While it began with the best of intentions, it is clear that the scale of work being carried out by the council on behalf of property owners is not sustainable. We also have to show the public clearly that we have made a clean break with the past so that we can begin to rebuild the trust that the city’s residents ought to have in their local authority.

We will be going out to property owners, professionals and others to seek their views on how we support those responsible for maintenance. The first set of proposals is going to be considered by a council committee next week. If approved, we will consult on how people feel about these and how best they can be funded.

What is clear, though, is that we need to return to a situation where the council is asked to intervene only in emergencies or as a last resort. That also needs to be complemented by the council supporting owners in managing repairs. There are various options for that, such as the council providing an inspection-only service, or helping owners to set up factoring arrangements.

I appreciate that the previous system, when working properly, provided benefits to those struggling to organise repairs with their neighbours. But the current situation demands that we move away from how we worked in the past, not only to avoid a repeat but also to provide public reassurance that things have changed.

Ultimately, the responsibility to keep a building safe principally lies with the owner – it always has done. But together we all have a shared interest in the fabric of our city being safe for those who live, work and travel here. We also need to ensure that our housing is of a good quality and that we don’t let buildings deteriorate, creating problems for the future.

That means there is still a role for the council in the future, but with a very different emphasis. For now we are both shaping our future plans for discussion with the public and making every effort to resolve the practices of the past.

Over time, I firmly believe that we will be able to show that we have learnt important lessons from this episode and taken the right steps to put things right again. Only then will we be able to restore the public’s faith in how their local authority helps to look after the city’s buildings.

• Councillor Alastair Rankin is finances and resources convener at Edinburgh City Council

Alternative options

THE council is proposing a range of options for a new property conservation service. These include:

• A property factoring service – a property and project management service to carry out repairs and maintenance on behalf of owners.

• A “tenement management scheme” – a way of enabling homeowners to manage common repairs, with repairs owner-led where there is a majority. Where the majority relates to council-owned property the council can act as a factor.

• Reintro-ducing a service like the Edinburgh Stair Partnership – providing advice and guidance to support owners in sorting out common repairs.

• Carrying out inspections on buildings at risk – sample inspections would focus on properties on the Buildings at Risk Register, with problems reported to the owner and advice provided on medium to long-term repairs and any areas that required emergency work.