1996 call-out cost decision linked to repairs scandal

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A DECISION by a council committee 15 years ago may have introduced a culture of overcharging which led to the current statutory repairs scandal, it was claimed today.

Councillors agreed in 1996 to set a flat-rate minimum charge for emergency repairs such as unblocking drains which took no regard of the actual costs of the job.

The charge has now been slashed almost in half, from £29.50 per owner in blocks of more than 20 properties to just £15, after officials admitted it had resulted in some home-owners paying more than the cost of the work carried out.

Former Labour council leader Ewan Aitken today suggested the current problems over the statutory notice system – which has seen four staff sacked amid allegations of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence – could be traced back to that decision in 1996, when Labour was in power.

He said: “My fear is what happened was we set in train a kind of systemic culture that said it was OK on occasion to overcharge. They are admitting that by saying we should cut it.”

In a report to next week’s finance and resources committee, Mark Turley, the city council’s director of services for communities, explains the original decision to set a minimum charge was to reflect the cost of providing a 24-hour emergency call-out service.

He said: “This can have the effect of recovering more than the actual cost of the work when a large number of owners are involved. This is obviously a particularly sensitive issue in the current climate and given current concerns about the service.”

In the last financial year, 2010-11, 2078 minimum charges were issued for blocks with more than 20 properties.

Mr Turley adds the charge could “reinforce negative public perceptions of the service”.

Cllr Aitken said he was not suggesting there had been a deliberate move to charge over the odds. He said he had studiously avoided making the statutory repairs situation a party political issue. “We are all collectively responsible,” he said.

Senior Liberal Democrat councillor Gordon Mackenzie said he had raised the issue of the minimum charge shortly before Christmas and welcomed the swift action to cut the fee.

He said: “I don’t think it necessarily added to the culture in the department. It’s more a case that it was not properly thought through at the time and has lasted this long because it’s a relatively small amount for individuals to bother following up.