As of July the council stopped repairing lights in common stairs across the city. If there are council-owned properties in a stair, repairs will still be done and the council will still pay the electricity bill. But, in general, if stair lighting goes wrong you are on your own.
The main driver is cost. On a full-year basis, the council estimates it will save £1 million from withdrawing the service. At a time when cuts of well over £100m are being targeted, that cannot be ignored. However, in the budget debate back in January, Green councillors put forward a counter-proposal, where the service would still be provided by the council but householders would be recharged for repairs. That proposal was vetoed by all other parties in the council.
Flats make up two-thirds of Edinburgh’s housing. So now, we have the situation where a single service for the whole city is being replaced by a patchwork of arrangements, negotiated stair by stair, affecting 70,000 flats in total. At best, this is inefficient; at worst, it could leave thousands of common stairs where no arrangement at all is made for maintenance and repair: and their subsequent plunging into darkness is a likely reality. Stairways become more likely to see stumbles and falls, to feel less safe and to give rise to criminal or anti-social activity.
In this future, it is not as simple as changing a light bulb: most stair lights have special fastenings designed only to be accessed by qualified staff, after the electricity supply has been isolated.
Now, it is highly unlikely the council will reverse its decision to withdraw from stair lighting repairs, since that would require a U-turn from all other parties. They might, however, be persuaded to explore whether a replacement service could be offered to all of those flats left high and dry by the council decision: a social enterprise or co-operative perhaps or an offshoot of one of the city’s housing associations or property managers. An “Edinburgh Shared Lighting Service” would surely be able to offer very competitive prices by the sheer volume of work at hand.
In my own area, there is a move to set up a residents’ co-operative, “Green Doors”, to enable regular and emergency maintenance to doors and common areas on an ongoing basis, aiming to give residents comfort that work will be done as and when needed and their common stair will be safe, clean and welcoming.
Of course, Edinburgh has struggled for decades with the thorny issue of common repair to tenements and flats. Lighting is just the latest addition to a list of maintenance needs like roof repair, drainage and door entry systems. Although the council still offers a last-resort step-in service where owners of flats cannot agree on common repairs, it is far better for there to be robust common management models in which owners are able to organise proper maintenance themselves.
However, owners continue to face a fundamental stumbling block with common repairs. Recently, council staff have been piloting the new shared repairs service, working to support residents in getting necessary work done. In every single one of the 20 pilots, it proved impossible to get agreement from all owners. Whilst the law does allow work done if there is majority agreement, it then leaves that responsible majority to try to recover costs from unco-operative flat owners. This inevitably leads to stalled or abandoned maintenance. So I have called for details on the required legal changes to be presented to councillors this autumn so there can be an informed approach to the Scottish Government.
So a shared lighting service, in the short term, may be about illuminating the gloom over the long dark winter months, but it might also highlight (if you can excuse the pun) the way to a brighter, better future for common property management as a whole.
Melanie Main is Green councillor for Meadows/Morningside