Time to rebuild trust in statutory repairs system

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AT this time, I certainly do not wish to pre-empt the future findings of the external investigation initiated by the City of Edinburgh Council to investigate allegations of criminal wrong-doing having been committed under the council’s statutory notice system for building repairs.

However, if these allegations are proven to be true, those involved must be punished to the full extent that the law permits. Any contractor implicated and found guilty should never work for the City of Edinburgh Council again.

Indeed, I would respectfully suggest that it was the serious concerns initially raised by the Scottish Building Federation which prompted the council to commence the external investigation.

The crazy thing is that at a time when the building trade is desperate for work and prices are extremely competitive, the essential work undertaken in maintaining Edinburgh’s built environment has all but dried up. The council’s report, published in October 2010, stated that there is “around £1.4 billion in outstanding repair work to bring the fabric of Edinburgh’s historic built environment to a reasonable standard of care”.

So let’s not kid ourselves, we need a system by which buildings under co-ownership can be maintained if the building owners either neglect their obligations or, as is more commonly the case, fail to get the agreement and co-operation of all owners. Hence the reason as to why this scheme was set up in the first place.

If it is proven that certain individuals or contractors have abused that system to line their own pockets, they should be shown no mercy. However, let us remember that there are many honest, bona fide contractors in Edinburgh and the Lothians who attempt to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and a top quality job. The fact remains that we need to have in place a system for implementing repairs that ensures Edinburgh’s architectural heritage is suitably preserved. That is why I welcome the investigation and why I would argue strongly that these revelations should prompt a root and branch reform of the statutory notice system, resulting in a system that has the correct checks and balances to ensure the confidence of the citizens of Edinburgh.

Such a reform offers a real opportunity to revise the system in such a way as to ensure it achieves what it was originally intended to, without exposing property owners to inflated costs, shoddy workmanship or – worst of all – downright dangerous working practices.

I would like to see a far more robust system for the accreditation of contractors who carry out repair works under any future scheme and one which will give consumers confidence that the contractor undertaking work on their home is suitably qualified and reputable.

I also believe that the scheme should include a renewed focus on offering many more young construction workers the opportunity to work on statutory repair projects.

A requirement to offer apprenticeships should be built into the system, so the local construction industry retains and develops the skills and know-how in the traditional crafts needed to maintain Edinburgh’s historic built environment to the high standards expected by the 13 million tourists who visit every year.

I am pleased that an independent inquiry is progressing. My only counsel to the City of Edinburgh would be to avoid throwing out the baby with what may turn out to be some very dirty bathwater. Let us learn the appropriate lessons from whatever the inquiry uncovers. But let us also build on the positive intentions which lie behind Edinburgh’s statutory notice system. That way we will ensure that over many years to come Edinburgh remains the architectural jewel that people the world over flock to see and homeowners’ trust is rebuilt.

In the meantime, anybody seeking the services of a bona fide building contractor should feel free to contact the Scottish Building Federation or check out our website www.scottish-building.co.uk

n Michael Levack is chief executive of the Scottish Building Federation