Lorn Macneal: The roof has caved in . . but repairs system can be rebuilt

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As the probe continues into the city’s statutory notice scandal, architect Lorn Macneal says it’s not all the council’s fault

IT is obvious there have been major issues with the city council in its implementation of statutory repair notices, but not all the blame lies in the City Chambers.

I have been a vocal critic of a system that once worked well in ensuring essential repairs were dutifully carried out at reasonable cost but more recently took a quantum leap into arranging full-blown major repairs at exorbitant cost.

In this regard, the council has demonstrated a nonchalant disregard of the interests of the affected owners through its total unwillingness to reasonably inform them of the ongoing extent, nature or value of works.

But at the same time, there must be a degree of sympathy for the position the local authority finds itself in.

The council is under increasing pressure to respond to a whole raft of legislative requirements in ensuring compliance with costly health and safety initiatives, planning and Historic Scotland requirements, and avoiding equally damaging claims arising from doing too little. This must be thoroughly reviewed.

As an example, I was advised that it is no longer possible to pre-inspect a building for repair from a platform lift for reasons of health and safety. Instead, the council requires to pay to erect a fully boarded scaffold. This I cannot reconcile.

The replacement of leadwork is an obligatory requirement on listed buildings where it is fatigued. High performance bitumastic roofing felts very probably offer a lifespan of more than 30 years. Yes, lead may last twice as long, but felt roofs are a third of the price and, most importantly, will not be stolen. Historic Scotland must review this policy.

The extent of stonework repairs must also be considered. All but a very few cracked lintels and sills are an historic legacy and of no structural consequence. Unfortunately, by too many building surveyors they are perceived as a structural inadequacy requiring the replacement of the defective stone at significant cost rather than simple repointing repair. Regrettably, the extent of disruption to the surrounding masonry in the removal of the old stone and indenting the new must be more damaging to the building structure than simply leaving matters be.

Costs in rebuilding chimneys are another huge factor. Historic Scotland insists any stone chimneys on listed buildings must be rebuilt in stone. I can sympathise with that stance where a chimney is in a prominent location, but surely not rear or unsighted chimneys where they could be rebuilt in rendered brick at less than half the cost?

As the investigation into the statutory repair system continues, we must take the opportunity to reconsider all these issues, and many more, to ensure we once again have a system that works effectively.

My firm, amongst many other architects, has opted away from becoming involved in arranging private common repairs, and with good reason. The tenement act offers a quorum of co-proprietors the opportunity to privately arrange repair and seek recovery of costs through the legal system against those unwilling to participate. In reality this is difficult to apply, it involves a huge commitment from those in support, and much stress in winning over the support of those opposed, often resulting in bitter and unprovoked acrimony. As far as my much-publicised project in Nelson Street is concerned, it is fair to say the co-proprietors to all but a person have been fully supportive and indebted to myself in rescuing the repair costs from a potential bill of £300,000 down to an affordable £40,000; all arranged through the appointed quantity surveyor Abacus, and the hugely patient and proactive proprietor’s representative Professor Duncan McMillan. He managed to set up a bank account established on the reduced costs, into which all but one party immediately settled their full contributions. A year on, that one individual has yet to contribute.

Thirty years ago, when we were last in the grips of a major recession, the government applied Keynesian economic policies, which in essence was to spend our way out of recession by kick-starting the building industry in creating employment through the introduction of 90 per cent repair grants to all inner city areas.

These generally worked very well, as they represented extraordinary value.

But even with the offer there were huge issues in seeking agreements, with some projects failing to ever get off the ground, and some that did still proving very awkward.

Frustratingly, we all too often encountered in most stairs one party who made it their business to throw any obstacle in the path of progress. My firm was driven to hell and back by one such individual who baffled us with a diatribe of litigious correspondence.

Most common repairs are in essence a thoroughly unsociable activity and it’s for that reason I believe the council’s statutory repair system has worked well in the past and hopefully can do so again once matters return to the status quo and confidence is restored. They have a rightful place in removing this pain through arranging these repairs in what I hope will once again be a fair, informative, effective, and equitable manner.

* Lorn Macneal is principal of the award-winning Lorn Macneal Architects, St Vincent Street, Edinburgh. www.lornmacneal.co.uk