By David Gibbon MRICS MCABE
City of Edinburgh Council is planning to reinstate their discredited common repairs scheme. I cannot understand why there has been no public inquiry into what has gone wrong. This is a matter of national, not simply local interest because the problems associated with the maintenance of common property is a national one.
Edinburgh’s unique statutory powers of enforcement in the repair of private property have brought disgrace on the council. For them to contemplate reviving the scheme now is quite shocking. At one time I was rather supportive of CEC’s common repairs scheme as it appeared to overcome the problem of owners refusing to share in the cost of essential repairs and held out the prospect of Edinburgh’s historic building fabric being well maintained.
In practice, however, it proved to have a number of major shortcomings. Worst of these was that it took responsibility away from owners and allowed them to shrug their shoulders and allow “them” to do what they should have been doing for themselves.
Instead of operating cooperatively in their mutual interests and in a neighbourly spirit, they were able to sit back and be obnoxious to one another and to the council officials, contractors and consultants involved. Bad behaviour bred more and more bad behaviour. The system also encouraged a high-handed, arrogant and disdainful approach by council officials not helped by the antagonism inherent in an “enforcement” situation.
The statutory power that the council had been granted only allowed them to repair, not in any way to improve the buildings they were dealing with. This created all sorts of illogical situations that were in no-one’s best interests but could not be resolved in the absence of co-operation and communication. In point of fact the reaction of the officials was to ride roughshod over their statutory remit and invent an often arbitrary, and as we now see, illegal, rules-system. This was devised by low-grade officials lacking in any professional perspective.
The system was heavily constrained by EU procurement regulations that were quite cleverly transformed into sort of framework agreements, but then corruption set in and contractors like Action, that were no part of the framework started to get work and to distribute largesse to the officials. However whether the inflexibilities surrounding the EU procurement rules were really to the individual owner’s benefit is questionable. The system became vastly complicated and although there were some economies of scale they were no doubt counterbalanced by the associated overblown bureaucracy.
If owners could employ surveyors and contractors on their own terms very much more bespoke and light touch procurement arrangements could be provided.
Projects often escalated because there was a presumption against carrying out detailed surveys before work was embarked on. Again if owners commissioned their own works they could decide for themselves what level of risk they were prepared to trade off for upfront costs.
Managing a similar in-house CEC scheme but this time with properly qualified professionals might overcome some, but certainly not all of the problems that were encountered previously. However the situation will always be distorted in favour of the council as long as they are allowed to use their powers of enforcement, their access to the database of owners names and addresses and their ability not to charge VAT on building repair and maintenance projects.
I think they have disgraced themselves to such an extent that they should be stripped of these powers. I don’t wish to see anyone charged VAT on the repair of buildings but it is a ridiculous market distortion that this concession should only be available through the council.
Only central government can really sort this mess out and step No 1 would be to hold a properly constituted Public Inquiry.It is very probable that the council will plough ahead regardless and that they will repeat some of the same mistakes and a whole lot more besides because that is how our council behaves, but in my opinion the system is unfixable. The Edinburgh District Council Confirmation Act is not fit for purpose. This is not the way to go.