Scandal-hit statutory notice system to be scrapped in favour of voluntary schemes

The city council has proposed a series of alternatives to the current system

The city council has proposed a series of alternatives to the current system

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THE Capital’s scandal-hit statutory repairs system is set to be scrapped in favour of a series of voluntary initiatives aimed at encouraging home owners to take more responsibility for their own property repairs.

Appointing factors to oversee the maintenance and repair of communal buildings – a service similar to those used in other cities – and encouraging owners of at-risk buildings to pay for annual inspections are among the ideas being put forward.

City leaders said they need to “clean up the council’s act” and completely overhaul the current statutory notice system in light of the Capital’s property repairs scandal.

A reintroduction of the Edinburgh Stair Partnership – closed in April this year – has also been suggested, although officials admitted that at its peak just 150 tenements in the city were signed up to it.

A lack of confidence in the council’s ability to oversee property repairs has also been highlighted as a potential stumbling block in encouraging people to sign up to any new service that is overseen by the local authority.

Councillor Alastair Rankin, finances and resources convener, said the council needed a clean break from the current “flawed” system.

He said: “We must have a clear break with the past to reassure the public that the council has cleaned up its act.”

The 20-page report highlighted that the key focus for the overhauled system was to get owners to “take responsibility” for repairs on their homes.

All of the options would require homeowners to agree to work more closely together to handle the maintenance of their property, and the council’s statutory notice powers would be used only as an “option of last resort” where it proved impossible for building owners to agree a course of action on repair work.

The council will hold meetings with property owners and other interested parties and carry out a wide-ranging survey of homeowners between August and September to discuss the options.

It is hoped that the new service will be running by spring 2013.

The emergency statutory notice system, however, looks set to continue as the council feels it is a “valued” and “well-regarded” service.

The report revealed that between March 2011 to June 2012, a total of 1664 emergency notices were issued – an average of 111 a month – many of them after extreme weather battered the city’s buildings.

The council admitted there was an “over dependency” on the service and a proposed programme of inspections for buildings at risk has been highlighted as a way of cutting down the statutory repairs required, as it would allow problems to be identified earlier. One drawback however is that the costs for organising these inspections could not be recovered from owners under existing powers, and so would require residents to sign up to the scheme in advance and agree to foot the bill.

The idea of providing a property factoring service, which would see firms appointed to oversee common repairs and maintenance on behalf of owners, could prove the best option, with similar schemes used commonly in other Scottish cities.

Like the Edinburgh Stair Partnership, it would require all homeowners within a building to sign up for the scheme, something which has proved difficult to manage in the past.

The report warns the council’s property repairs department “has suffered significant reputational damage”.

Brian Sibbald, the former boss of the council’s property conservation department, has warned staff “couldn’t cope” with the volume of work.

The latest report admits that instead of being a last resort, statutory notice powers had increasingly been used as a first resort. This led to an increased workload which in turn caused shortcuts to be taken when it came to communicating with owners about works and costs, how contracts were procured, how statutory notices were managed by staff and how costs were recovered from owners. The changes needed to fix these problems will lead to “a total redesign of the service”, involving a review of the powers available to the council, its IT and banking systems, and performance assessments of staff. It would also look to include a customer 
charter.

Cllr Rankin said that while it would be difficult to encourage homeowners to sign up to any new service, it was the best way forward for the city.

“Ultimately, the responsibility to keep a building safe lies with the owner,” he said.

“But we all have a shared interest in the fabric of our city being safe and sound. We will always take steps to protect the public from dangerous buildings, but what we want to find out from the public is what they think about the extent of 
our involvement in other 
situations.

“We recognise the frustrations that property owners can experience when trying to agree works with their neighbours and in getting these paid. However, we need to find a different way 
forward.”

The proposals are to be considered at the policy and strategy committee on August 7.

The way forward for proposed new service

THE council is proposing a range of options for a new property conservation service. These include:

• A property factoring service – the provision of a property and project management service to carry out common repairs and maintenance on behalf of owners.

Advantages: Property factors must adhere to a set of standards within the code of conduct; clear standards must be set out on factoring charges and debt recovery, meaning clearer advice for owners experiencing financial difficulties in meeting costs.

Risks: Requires owner interest in service; confidence in the council providing this service may be low.

Costs: self financing through an administration fee.

• A “tenement management scheme” – a way of enabling homeowners to manage common repairs, with repairs owner-led where there is a majority. Where the majority relates to council-owned property the council can act as a factor.

Advantages: Provides a clear structure on how owners can manage repairs; income recovery rate is 90 per cent and average cost of repair to homeowners equates to just £391.

Risks: Low owner interest in utilising this scheme.

Costs: £250,000 (to cover eight property officers) plus an additional 25 per cent on costs.

• Reintroducing a service like the Edinburgh Stair Partnership (ESP) – provides advice and guidance to support owners in sorting out common repairs to their property, with assistance including an annual inspection, project management and the collection of money covering the cost of the repair to pay a contractor.

Advantages: Service was previously provided and new version could be improved upon from lessons learned; enables owners to make informed decisions on repairs and maintenance.

Risks: Previous difficulty in encouraging the required 100 per cent of owners to sign up for scheme; ESP service required an annual subsidy; customer confidence in council reinstating this service may be low.

Costs: £200,000 (for five surveyors and two customer advisors) plus an extra 25 per cent on costs.

• Carrying out inspections on buildings at risk – sample inspections would focus on properties on the Building Risk Register, with problems reported to the owner and advice provided on medium to long-term repairs and any areas that required emergency work.

Advantages: Maximises public safety; early detection of repairs would help avoid high-cost emergency repairs.

Risks: Potential liabilities include the implications of an inspection not identifying the extent of the repair required; costs cannot be recovered under statutory notice powers.

Costs: £900,000 (hire of five hoists, two officer crew and one admin post).

The story so far

The council’s property conservation service 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.

Following an internal audit, findings led council bosses to commission auditor Deloitte to conduct a £2 million independent report into the section.

Lothian and Borders Police also conducted their own investigation.

After a year-long investigation which saw up to 30 people suspended, seven people were sacked following disciplinary hearings, including the acting head of service, Janis Dunn, and the alleged whistleblower. Brian Sibbald, the head of property conservation, retired.

Four people remain suspended, including the director of city development, Dave Anderson.

In 2011, a second investigation into the council’s property care department commenced.

The section, which deals with public buildings, came under fire after concerns were raised about staff and contractors. In June, 15 associates of contractors, ex-employees and associates of ex-employees were charged with offences including fraud, corruption and money laundering.

Statutory repair notices allow the council to carry out essential repairs to private properties and then recoup the costs.

It emerged last year that the crisis had prompted plans for a major shake-up in the way building repairs were handled.

At the time the council put all non-urgent repair notices on hold and said a new system would be put in place by the end of the year.