Helen Martin: Everybody needs good neighbours

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It was 7am and I was lying with a pillow over my head humming the theme tune to Neighbours.

In another garden, about 12 yards away, two charming, ebullient, but extremely noisy young children had been let out at the crack of dawn to play what sounded like an inter-galactic battle game.

In a built-up city such as Edinburgh, getting on with neighbours can be very challenging. But Auld Reekie is both blessed and cursed by something that makes that even more difficult – a plethora of tenements.

They are beautiful, spacious and packed full of period character. There was a time when the stair population was stable, families knew each other, drying greens were shared and codes of behaviour prevailed. Now the tenement is a rung on the property ladder for upwardly mobile professionals, a temporary home for transient students, and an investment for absentee landlords.

Not only has the village neighbourliness gone, but the communal repair bills are arriving; an inevitable consequence of these buildings now passing their centenary.

Among the many people caught up in all this are Midlothian SNP leader Lisa Beattie, her MSP husband Colin, and the neighbours of their owned-to-rent HMO flat in Marchmont.

When the licence renewal came up, there were complaints and counter-complaints in a saga of problems from leaking waste to communal painting, stair-washing and repairs to stonework.

I stayed in a city tenement for 12 years. I loved the flat and most of my neighbours, but I can sympathise with the Beatties, and even more with their neighbours who actually live there, because I cannot remember a time when we weren’t all facing – united or not – one problem or another.

Some people wanted to repaint the tired, flaking, stairwell; others didn’t. Some sympathised with a dysfunctional neighbour who lowered the tone; others didn’t. Some cleaned the stairs, some didn’t. Some put their waste bags out too early; some too late. Some accepted a ludicrous roof repair bill; others challenged it. At the time only the two ground-floor flats had absent landlords, one of whom had lived there until recently. We all knew each other . . . communal living – for that’s what a tenement is – still wasn’t easy. Who knows what it must be like in a stair full of strangers.

It may mystify newcomers to Edinburgh (or Glasgow for that matter) but as we know, tenement flats can be gracious family homes or rented apartments to be treasured. Unfortunately they are not ideal for today’s ever-changing population. They need to be consistently managed, cared for and preserved in order to avoid crippling major works that no ordinary homeowner can afford.

Despite their positive effect on the local economy, the influx of students, or rather the absence of their landlords, is becoming a blight on areas such as Marchmont and Bruntsfield and, regardless of the troubles of the council’s property conservation department, all those streets and streets of buildings do have to be conserved.

It would solve two problems if it became mandatory for tenement owners to appoint a factor. Someone objective would be there to referee on differences and call the shots on owners’ responsibilities and behaviour, and a qualified factor might be a deterrent to the council, or any other party, trying to over-charge or do unnecessary work.

I often miss my tenement flat, with its lounge the size of a small ball-room. In fact, if Battlestar Galactica doesn’t cease in the suburban garden next door, I may be tempted to swap back to Stair Wars, even with all the problems.

Taxing matters

TAX dodging has been going on since the days of Robin Hood (had he ever existed). In more prosperous recent times, keeping one’s hard-earned money from the tax man’s grasp was seen as honourable sport, albeit one that was about as accessible as polo.

Because if you were poor and tried to cheat, you would inevitably be found out, prosecuted and branded a fraudster, a dodger. But if you were rich and had a clever accountant; if you were old money and in the habit of setting up clever trust funds, there were several loopholes at your disposal. All legal, all above board, as long as you had enough loot to make it worthwhile and pay a tax avoidance expert.

And no-one, including the Inland Revenue/HMRC – who knew all the dodges employed – gave a hoot.

Now in the thick of a recession, social attitudes to tax avoidance are changing to the extraordinary extent that the finger-pointing is led by a Tory Prime Minister.

But it’s quite unfair to blame Gary Barlow or Jimmy Carr for being human and doing what we would all do if we had the chance. HMRC has had years to clamp down – and hasn’t. Catching a few working celebs is a start. But will they go on to close down all the avoidance avenues, including those favoured by “old money”, aristocrats and the super rich and which have been unfairly tolerated for generations?