Dianne Paterson: There’s nothing wrong with being a ‘tenement Scot’, Mr Cleese

Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP
Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP
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In an exchange with the Editor of the Spectator over press regulation last year, John Cleese asked on Twitter why it was that “we let half-educated tenement Scots run our English press”.

Discussion ensued amongst his fellow tweeters about the understanding of tenement living in Scotland today.

It was assumed the tenements to which he was referring were the high-density housing blocks in Scottish cities of the past. These were built to house disadvantaged families and tended to have poor maintenance and repair programmes, which led in some instances to slum conditions and social deprivation.

However, while it could be argued that some current social housing could still be described as substandard, there is no doubt the status of the tenement block in Scottish cities today enjoys an enviable reputation, and offers, in many cases, some fine living and grand designs. Around 69 per cent of households in Glasgow now live in purpose-built flats or tenements, with 60 per cent in Edinburgh and 48 and 47 per cent respectively in Aberdeen and Dundee.

The history of the tenement, of course, goes back to Roman days and to the “insula”, which was a block of separate dwelling houses in a single structure in Rome and Ostia, examples of which can still be seen today. The insulae were mainly tenements providing social housing for the working class.

Today, Scotland’s cities, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, are defined by their handsome Georgian and Victorian tenements and their owners or tenants. Life in a tenement appeals to many, offering a sense of security and social networking which, it could be argued, are not as readily available in single city dwellings or property outwith the city.

However, life in tenement blocks is not always plain sailing, particularly when it comes to repairs and maintenance of shared parts and areas, where issues can arise.

Many tenements appoint managing agents or factoring firms, more common in Glasgow and in new build blocks, who will attend to such matters; however, many of the older tenements in Edinburgh still manage repairs and maintenance without such aid.

When repairs and maintenance are required to shared parts and areas of the block, the first port of call is to check the title deeds to the property. The solicitor who acted in the purchase, or the lender who financed it, may hold these, but, in any event, it is most likely that the purchase solicitor will have prepared a report on the title and a summary of the shared parts and shared obligations at the time of the transaction and will be able to assist.

It is likely that the title deeds to the property will detail the common parts (shared areas), together with who is responsible for these, and how any costs for repair and maintenance should be divided.

However, occasionally, if the tenement block is particularly old, the title deeds may not provide all the answers required and may be silent on certain parts. For years, when titles were silent on such matters, owners had to rely on common law principles, which required unanimity for any maintenance and repair.

However, the Tenement (Scotland) Act 2004 clarified who owned what in a tenement block and laid down the rules and regulations required, through a Tenement Management Scheme, to allow any necessary communal work to be carried out on a majority vote. The idea was to end disagreement among neighbours over communal repairs and allow necessary work to go ahead with the consent of the majority rather than by a unanimous vote.

There is little doubt that many tenement properties, over the years, fell into a state of neglect and disrepair due to the old system of maintenance and repairs; however, since the introduction of legislation to address these issues, there has been a general improvement in the condition and quality of our tenement stock. So much so, in fact, that it could even be argued that there might now be a sense of pride, among flat owners and occupiers, in being called a “tenement Scot”.

Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP