Ryan's Bar tragedy 20 years on: How Christine Foster death changed Edinburgh forever
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It was an unspeakably sad tragedy that devastated a family and changed Edinburgh forever, but one MSP says history is in danger of repeating itself unless the city pursues radical new legislative measures.
The untimely death of Ryan’s Bar waitress Christine Foster from falling masonry twenty years ago on June 29, 2000 prompted a policy of statutory repairs that would end in scandal a little over a decade later.
Eyewitnesses watched in horror as a coping stone suddenly gave way and came crashing down through an awning to the seating area below, injuring several and claiming the life of Ms Foster.
Four ambulance crews were dispatched to the scene, where, just moments earlier, people had been happily drinking and chatting on what was otherwise a sunny, but unremarkable, midsummer’s afternoon.
Having caught the brunt of the debris, the 26-year-old, from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, arrived in a critical condition at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, where she was pronounced dead later that day.
In one harrowing account, an eyewitness, Kenneth Owenson, who rushed over to the scene of the tragedy to offer his help, recalled seeing the life “pouring” from Ms Foster.
He said: “The slab was still lying next to her and had broken up and scattered across the ground. There was a lad there holding her hand. I looked at her eyes. The life was just pouring out of her.”
The young Australian, who chose to move to Edinburgh as it was her father’s birthplace, started working at the bar just weeks after arriving in the UK.
She had sent an email to her mother just days before her death, describing how she was “having a blast” in the Scottish capital.
Fatal accident inquiry
The fatal accident inquiry that followed the tragic masonry collapse identified a catalogue of “shoddy” repair work that had been carried out on the three-storey building in 1989.
Mark Heron, who worked as an environmental health officer at the time of the collapse, was tasked with leading the probe into the incident on behalf of the council.
Mr Heron later told the inquiry that a report from structural engineers James McColl revealed how the unsatisfactory renovation job 11 years prior had left “nothing else holding the coping stones in place except the masonry”.
Appearing at the court proceedings was Ms Foster’s bereaved father, Mike Foster, who bemoaned the lack of legal requirement for essential maintenance on the city’s oldest buildings.
Mr Foster, who travelled from his home in the Philippines to represent himself at the inquiry, was quoted at the time: “Personally I think there should be a register of suitably qualified construction professionals who can only be used in repairs if they are properly accredited.
“Other countries have stringent accreditation programmes and I am appalled that there is not one here. There does not appear to be any record of performance, qualifications or experience.”
“There seems to be an extreme lack of preventative building maintenance in this country. If anything good comes out of this I hope to achieve a change in the law.”
Spurred on by calls at the inquiry from the likes of Mike Foster and Sheriff Charles Stoddart for the local authority to carry out a prolonged and regular series of mandatory checks on the city’s numerous historic buildings that posed a risk to public safety, council leader Donald Anderson pushed for the introduction of a statutory repairs system.
The scheme granted the local authority the power to charge building owners for any maintenance work deemed essential by council-approved contractors. The council would retain 15 per cent of the cost.
But, while its inception had come from a good place, the statutory repairs scheme would descend into controversy and scandal within a matter of years, resulting in several council workers losing their jobs and even jailed.
Following a BBC Scotland investigation, it was revealed that many building owners had been grossly overcharged, with the council accused of giving the green light for carrying out non-essential repairs without consulting residents and businesses.
In the five years up to 2010, the value of statutory notices issued by the local authority shot up dramatically from £9.2m to more than £30m.
Four council workers would later be jailed on corruption charges for awarding contracts to building firms in return for tens of thousands of pounds worth of bribes, including football tickets and trips to lap dancing clubs.
Contractors were even found to have invoiced the council for more than £67,000 in order to cover the cost of bribes paid out to the council’s own officials.
Edinburgh’s controversy-marred Statutory Notice system was scrapped in April 2013 and replaced by a shared repairs service, which places the responsibility of building upkeep on the shoulders of several parties.
Statutory repairs can still be requested for emergencies, but some say the city is not doing enough to prevent future tragedy.
Last year, Conservative MSP Graham Simpson, led a working group calling for five-yearly checks on Scotland’s tenement stock and condition reports made publicly available to building owners, as it emerged from official council figures that more than 20 masonry falls were being recorded in Edinburgh alone every month.
Mr Simpson wants to see a legal body set up that would take care of building maintenance, with a building reserve fund established to help cover costs.
Arguing that very little has been done since the tragic Christine Foster case to ensure that buildings are properly maintained, the Central Scotland MSP told the Evening News: “We are in a position where, legislatively, there is a gap and, if something goes wrong, many owners can’t afford to get the necessary work done.
“But it has to be tackled. It’s an issue that cannot be ignored, because we don’t want more tragedies like Ryan’s Bar.
“History could easily repeat itself unless something’s done.”
He added: “The best way forward for all concerned is to take these recommendations that we’ve laid out seriously and commit to legislation so that we have a viable system in place whereby property maintenance is taken seriously – but we just don’t have that at the moment.”
Donald Anderson: Bar tragedy was a clarion call for change in Capital
The Ryan’s Bar tragedy had a “profound impact” on the city that can still be felt to this day, says former council leader Donald Anderson.
Mr Anderson, who was serving in his second year as leader at the time of the tragedy, told the Evening News how Christine Foster’s horrific death was a “clarion call” that prompted new focus on the importance of maintaining Edinburgh’s ageing buildings.
However, the former Labour councillor for Kaimes, said he had sincere regrets over how the statutory repairs scheme that was devised in the wake of the inquiry into Ms Foster’s death panned out.
Speaking on the 20th anniversary of Ms Foster’s death, he said: “It was a tragedy of the worst kind. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand the scale of the loss. I think everybody would empathise with what happened.
“It was just horrific and it had a profound impact on, not just the city, but the council as well.
“There was obviously an inquiry, and, as a result of that, there were steps taken to try and improve the maintenance of the city’s building stock across the board.
“What was significant about the findings of the inquiry was that this wasn’t a case of gradual decay causing the problem; this was very clearly a case of faulty workmanship.
“The repair scheme wasn’t just about looking after old buildings, it was about making sure that when work’s carried out on those buildings that it’s done to a proper standard. There was a big push to make sure that was achieved.
“It’s a challenge every city faces. Buildings age, they deteriorate, they have to be maintained, but at that time it was just brought into very sharp focus, because of the tragic loss of a young girl who had her whole life ahead of her and everything to look forward to.
“This tragedy really hit home and was a clarion call for us to raise the quality of the work that was done on existing buildings and to raise the volume of work that was carried out on existing buildings.”
Pressed on the statutory repairs scandal that engulfed the local authority after he left office, Mr Anderson noted that there were “obviously” a number of council officials who had been corrupt.
He said: “There were obviously some great people who worked in property services – I knew many of them.
“A lot of the people I worked with were excellent at that time, but, by the same token, there were people in there who were obviously corrupt and that wasn’t picked up quickly enough – and that was what led to the major problems with the statutory repairs service.
“It was just crazy and it was corrupt.
“I think everybody was always aware of it in the council, that there are always risks from people who were corrupt and there was always a need to be vigilant about that, but this just refreshed everyone’s memories in that regard, that you have to make sure there are checks and balances in place, so that the service that’s being provided is being provided for the benefit of the people who receive the service rather than being for the benefit of the council as an organisation.
“I’ve got no doubt in my own mind that it led to a huge amount of work on existing buildings and a real focus on making sure that buildings were protected and enhanced.
“I think that still lasts to this day, although there have been lots of changes to the way that the council operates, there is still a big push to try and make sure that in tenement areas in particular, buildings are as well-maintained and looked after as they possibly can be in order to avoid any future tragedies.”
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