Gordon Murdie: Demolishing city repairs service is not the answer

Proposals to scrap statutory notices may make things worse for householders
Proposals to scrap statutory notices may make things worse for householders
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You may find this hard to believe after all the recent bad publicity, but Edinburgh’s embattled statutory notice system needs to be retained. It is a very good system which was designed to maintain the safety and integrity of the built heritage of the Capital.

Any suggestion that the “scandal-hit statutory notice system” should be scrapped is wrong-minded and ought to be treated with due caution and deep suspicion. The present system is neither flawed nor scandal-hit. Many people involved in it are, and that’s a very important distinction to make.

If a few council employees took to driving down one-way streets the wrong way, reversing up motorways and parking in bus shelters, would the answer be to rewrite the Highway Code? Of course not. What purpose would there be in “redesigning” the rules and having a whole new Highway Code ready in six or seven months from now. It would end in a road crash much as the “new proposals” which the council are putting forward surely will.

Edinburgh has been embarrassed enough already and no-one should be persuaded that the statutory notice system was “flawed”. The fact is that many cities in the UK are looking towards implementation of Edinburgh’s statutory notice system, simply because it is a very good system. What went wrong with the management of it is the stuff of legend – scandalous ineptitude, institutional incompetence and an utter disregard for the people who were paying a 15 per cent fee for the “service”.

Effective action is now required to swiftly recommence the maintenance and repair of the buildings in our city. Allow me to shred all the nonsense in circulation about “focus group sessions”, “service model proposals” and “performance frameworks” that could be holding up the repair of dangerous buildings.

Fifty shades of Yes Minister is definitely not what is required.

There are problems with the council’s proposals for factors and other voluntary initiatives to deal with the kind of repairs which currently fall into the statutory notices system – not least that it is almost impossible to get ten people in a stair to agree to anything.

One significant drawback is that it would incur extra costs for homeowners as repairs carried out through factors and so on are liable for VAT. A little known benefit of the statutory notice system is that it is zero rated for VAT as it is classed as a “service”.

Here’s an alternative solution. Set up a fresh department – call it, say, CEC Building Conservation. Advertise externally for the required number of trained and experienced architects, surveyors, engineers and construction professionals. Such a team could deliver the service that should have been provided under the statutory notice system – notices could be served under a Statutory Notices 2012 banner to avoid striking fear into the hearts of the citizens of Edinburgh.

The building works would remain, as at present, zero rated for VAT purposes and the new team would have the calibre, integrity and professional skills to carry out the necessary work.

The public should have trust in the statutory notice system whilst feeling rather let down with many of the people who were delivering the service.

Trust in the system will be regained once it is in safe hands. As an additional safeguard, the council may wish to retain the “management” charge of 15 per cent, but use 2.5 per cent to pay an independent project monitor to be appointed separately by the mutual owners. The project monitor would effectively be a watchdog, monitoring what was going on, asking the right questions along the way and protecting the interests of the owners.

When lottery funding is granted for other types of building projects, the lottery fund appoints a project monitor to ensure that its money is appropriately spent. Maybe such an appointment on statutory notice works is long overdue. It would certainly have saved a lot of grief.

• Gordon Murdie is a quantity surveyor working in Edinburgh

TROUBLED TIMES

PROPERTY conservation was first investigated back in October 2010 after a member of staff allegedly blew the whistle on issues in the department.

An internal audit led council bosses to commission auditor Deloitte to conduct a £2 million independent report. Police also conducted their own probe.

Following a year-long investigation, seven people were sacked. In 2011, a second investigation into the council’s property care department began. The section, which deals with public buildings such as schools, came under fire after concerns were raised about staff and contractors.

In June, 15 associates of contractors, ex-employees and associates of former employees were charged with offences including fraud, corruption and money laundering.