Scandal-hit council repairs team boss admits: ‘We lost the plot’

Brian Sibbald has lifted the lid on an under-pressure department
Brian Sibbald has lifted the lid on an under-pressure department
0
Have your say

THE former boss of the council’s controversial property conservation department has lifted the lid on what went on within the section and admitted: “We made mistakes and we lost the plot.”

Brian Sibbald, 63, who took up the post of manager in the scandal-hit department in 2007, has spoken exclusively to the Evening News to reveal that staff “couldn’t cope” with the volume of work coming through the doors.

He now fears many of the Capital’s buildings are “falling into disrepair” due to the lack of statutory notice works being carried out as a result of the investigation.

He sensationally claimed: “People would be safer walking in the middle of the street.”

However, he stressed that there was “absolutely no 
evidence” of criminality within the department he led for four years.

During a candid three-hour interview, Mr Sibbald said:

• He fears a repeat of the Ryan’s Bar tragedy

• Employees were “stupid and naive” but were “not criminal”

• Staff numbers were cut by 25 per cent, while work trebled

• Rules about advising owners of escalating costs were broken

• Surveys were routinely carried out by staff looking up from the pavement

• Employees accepted gifts including Christmas hampers from contractors

Mr Sibbald, who was 
suspended in March 2011, retired a year later on ill-health grounds after being diagnosed with bladder cancer – but claimed he had “no choice” 
but to leave after being 
warned he would be sacked over his running of the 
department.

Property conservation was first investigated back in October 2010 after a member of staff allegedly blew the whistle on issues within the department by giving his password to a contractor, known as 
Contractor X.

The concerns raised led to a year-long investigation by the council and the police which saw up to 30 people 
suspended.

Seven people were sacked after disciplinary hearings, including the acting head of service, Janis Dunn, and the alleged whistleblower.

It also led to an investigation of the property care department, which deals with public buildings such as schools and libraries, that has seen 15 associates of contractors, ex-
employees and associates of ex-employees charged with offences including fraud, corruption and money laundering.

Nobody from the property conservation department has been charged with any criminal offence, and the News has been advised that no-one from the department is expected to face charges.

Mr Sibbald told the News: “When I took up the post in 2007 I went in to a demoralised staff, with no management, in a department which was separated from the main body of the council. Between 2007 and 2010 we had to cut staff by 25 per cent in the property conservation department. We were losing staff despite the increasing workload.

“You were working day after day up to your ears in mud. We were trying to resolve the situation, but it seemed that the more you did, the more difficult it became.

“The economic climate within the council was dire, there were massive budget cuts and every department was asked to make two per cent of savings every year.

“Despite the cuts, the value of works went up from 
£9.5 million in 2005 to £30m in 2010-11. The staff just couldn’t cope with the amount of work. We lost the plot.”

Mr Sibbald, who eventually retired in March 2012, admitted numerous mistakes were made within the department but claimed many were beyond his or his staff’s control.

“There were mistakes and there were frictions,” he said. “I worked with some good people, but the pressure was such that people got desperate. The biggest mistake staff made was not following protocol. One rule said that if the extent of works increased by ten per cent, owners had to be notified. They did not follow this.

“I also told staff to stop 
giving out estimates on work from the ground. Staff were taking a look from the outside then giving estimates without carrying out full surveys, due to health and safety rules and time restraints. Later on, we found out more work needed to be done, increasing the cost.

“Staff needed to be trained, but training and costs were a problem. Staff turnover was high and staff got younger and less experienced. Senior staff left for more lucrative jobs that paid more.

“There weren’t enough contractors [on the approved council list], skilled staff, consultants [with the right qualifications] or enough money to tackle the amount of work.”

Mr Sibbald said he was extremely concerned about the lack of statutory notice work going on today, and feared a repeat of the tragedy in June 2000 when waitress Christine Foster was killed after being hit by falling masonry from above Ryan’s Bar in the West End.

Although emergency works are still being carried out, he revealed that only £2.6m worth of repairs had been completed over the past year, despite harsh weather battering buildings. He said: “Every day in Edinburgh something falls off a building – tiles, guttering, masonry. People would be safer walking in the middle of the street.

“This is the perfect year for another disaster. Will there be another case of Ryan’s Bar? If there is another harsh winter, buildings will be in serious trouble. I’m not convinced the council is resilient enough to deal with the quantity of work around the city. At the moment, only emergencies are being tackled, but this is an old city with Victorian buildings and little maintenance.”

Talking about the decisions he and his staff made, Mr Sibbald, who was a public safety manager prior to joining property conservation, revealed further mistakes and regrets.

He said: “Most of the people working within the property department are honest, but there are dishonest people. Insidious people at the council destroyed us.

“I worked to the best of my ability and I stand by what I said and what I tried to do. I know this statement will come back to haunt me, but I said to all of the contractors in public: ‘I can make you millionaires with the amount of work in this city.’ What I meant by that was I could keep them all in 
business. All I wanted was quality work at quality prices.”

He said that contractors had also played a part in creating problems for the department.

He said: “All the time I used to tell my staff to be aware of their integrity, but some workers did accept hospitality they shouldn’t have. A lot of this hospitality wasn’t recorded.

“When I found out about it, it was recorded and staff were disciplined. I came back one Christmas to find the staff had accepted hampers from one contractor. They also went on golf days, on trips and accepted bottles of whisky. Accepting these things was the height of foolishness. Had I known, these things would have been returned or rejected.”

He also pointed out that files went missing due to the “shambolic” nature of the department. He said: “Green files – files concerning properties – did go missing. Things were lost. It was a shambles. It was the most cack-handed 
system of filing and efficiency that I have ever come across.”

Mr Sibbald said: “The only reason I am glad things have turned out this way is because it led to serious issues being uncovered. If people have been doing corrupt things they should be hung, drawn and quartered. If there is that level of corruption, I am pleased this whole thing was revealed. I want property conservation divorced from property care.

“I accept there was evidence of stupidity and naivety in my department, but not criminality. Did the guys do the jobs to the best of their ability? No, it was impossible.”

A council spokesman said emergency works were being completed across the city. He said: “We have continued to provide an emergency statutory notice service to help deal with problems that might pose a risk to people’s health or safety. This has been used many 
hundreds of times since we suspended the full service and has coped well with high winds and other pressures. However, it is ultimately up to owners to maintain their properties.”

Head of services for 
communities Mark Turley added: “The council responded strongly to the concerns made about property services by changing the management and beginning an investigation early last year.

“While we aren’t going to comment on individual cases, the information we uncovered included examples of inappropriate relationships between our staff and contractors, on both sides. We are always open to receiving new information but are confident that our investigation has identified the main issues we need to address.”

EMERGENCY SITUATION

PEOPLE reporting urgent repairs are concerned they are not being treated as emergencies, a councillor said today.

Colinton/Fairmilehead councillor Jason Rust said: “Given the allegations that have been made, I can appreciate why there has had to be a scaling back of work while investigations are ongoing. But I am aware of constituents reporting what they feel are urgent repairs which are not being considered under the current situation to be emergencies.

“Hopefully, as the investigations are drawn to a successful conclusion, that work can start to be ramped up again with a workforce that is not in the spotlight.”

Southside/Newington councillor Cameron Rose: “Brian Sibbald’s view needs to be set against the crippling corruption which has been uncovered. Whilst the housing stock does present some risks, that has to be set against a very big problem which Edinburgh is currently facing.”