Gina Davidson: Repair aid is tiny price to save life

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IF Disney made cities then Edinburgh is the kind of place to which they would probably aspire. A castle, a palace, ancient winding streets, cobbled roads, spires, turrets, statues, gargoyles, curlicues, extinct volcanoes, trees and parks, squares and crescents, plus a sky of a thousand hues which stretches on forever. It is a Pixar cartoonist’s pantone dream.

But Edinburgh is all too real and has very real problems dealing with the physical imperfections a city of historical and architectural merit can develop in the 21st century.

The buildings of Edinburgh – be they ancient monuments or red sandstone tenements – are part and parcel of its character. The very fact that most are now centuries old leads to a major headache – how to stop them becoming a danger to the people passing beneath their towering magnificence.

Certainly the dream of a working summer in Edinburgh turned into a nightmare for 26-year-old Australian waitress Christine Foster and her family. Back in 2000, she was fatally injured outside Ryan’s Bar when loose masonry crashed down on top of her.

It was from the inquiry into her death that changes were supposed to result, lessons were to be learned.

It was recommended that local authorities should be allowed to carry out a series of mandatory construction inspections of all building work, including renovations as they were ongoing, such as was done in England and Wales. At that time, Scottish local authorities needed to only inspect work once it was complete.

Another recommendation was that there should be advertising campaigns to remind property owners of their responsibility to ensure their buildings are safe. Yet another still was that there should be annual MOTs of buildings to make sure they are safe. All of which were, unsurprisingly, fully supported by Mike Foster, the father of Christine.

Imagine how he must feel today. He lost his “best friend” and yet in her death held on to a hope that some good would come of it. That such a tragedy would not happen again.

But none of those things came to pass. And while no-one has since died in similar circumstances, this week there was yet another masonry scare.

Two cladding panels fell 30ft from the roof of the Next store on Princes Street. The fact that no-one was hurt was a combination of timing – it happened at 6.30am – and sheer luck.

That this kind of potential disaster is still hovering above our heads is nothing short of scandalous neglect.

At the time of the fatal accident inquiry into Christine’s death, it was suggested that there could be as many as 5000 decaying Georgian buildings in Edinburgh, and in the years since there have been near misses on North Bridge, outside Jenners, in the Grassmarket and in Tollcross. This week, we had another one.

Of course there will be all sorts of excuses made – cuts to council budgets mean there are fewer inspectors, a proposed “dangerous structures team” never came to fruition because of lack of money, private owners don’t have the money or the requisite expertise to even know when something’s needing done.

Then there’s the current freeze on all property conservation works not deemed “emergencies” because of the fraud investigation into the council’s discredited repairs department.

Well, as Mr Foster might say, it’s not good enough. And nor is it good enough to now be repeating recommendations first made 12 years ago.

Of course there should be annual inspections and of course this should be done at the property owners’ expense. It seems as obvious as the fact that the golden globe has yet to make a reappearance on the Topshop building.

It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing against inspection, or even paying a small fee for it. The real problem comes when repairs are required.

There has to be a scheme to help pay for them. And if ever there was an argument for the returning of business rates raised in Edinburgh to the council coffers rather than them going to the government, then this is one. A fund could be kept to ensure that if and when repairs are required, hard-pressed businesses can call on it to help them cover some of the costs.

Repairing old buildings is expensive. Homeowners who, in the past, have had to fork out to get chimneys restacked and lintels repaired know how it can add up.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a safety net in place to help homeowners in the form of grants for repairs and improvements. It is surely time something similar is reinstated at a Scottish Government level. I’m sure it would be a better way of spending £6m than splashing out on iPads.

If Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop is seriously concerned about the deteriorating condition of old buildings then she must see that financial assistance will be needed for those who simply do not have the wherewithal to carry out massive repairs.

Our population is getting older, the NHS is feeling the strain of that and, as a result, more resources are being targeted in that direction.

It’s the same with our buildings. Let’s make sure that this time things are changed so that no other family like the Fosters has to experience the loss of a loved one because of a loose brick.