Insight: Scotland’s ageing housing stock is being left to rot

David Cole in the stairwell of his Edinburgh tenement. Picture: Ian Georgeson
David Cole in the stairwell of his Edinburgh tenement. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Some experts believe it will take another disaster to force private owners to keep Scotland’s dilapidated housing stock in better repair, finds Dani Garavelli

When David Cole bought his flat in the Easter Road area of Edinburgh he was looking forward to the joys of home ownership. With property prices in the capital so high, he’d had to lower his expectations about what he could afford. But still, at 42, it would be good to have somewhere to settle.

It wasn’t long, however, before Cole encountered the downside of tenement living. Shortly after moving in, he discovered a leak in the cupola which was damaging the plaster-work on the top floor. It required an immediate repair. Assuming this would be straightforward, he set about contacting the other 15 owners. Which is when his nightmare began.

It wasn’t long, however, before Cole encountered the downside of tenement living. Shortly after moving in, he discovered a leak in the cupola which was damaging the plaster-work on the top floor. It required an immediate repair. Assuming this would be straightforward, he set about contacting the other 15 owners. Which is when his nightmare began.

With many of the flats rented out, and one of them being used as an Airbnb, he turned to the Scottish Landlord Register, only to find half the entries were out of date. It took six months’ detective work to track everyone down. But then two of the owners refused to cooperate. Under the Tenement Scotland Act 2004, repairs can be carried out if a majority of owners agree. But if several owners refuse to pay their share, the majority rule is academic. Someone is going to be out of pocket.

In this case, that person was Cole. He stumped up the missing shares – at a cost of almost £1,000 – in the hopes he would be able to recoup the money later. The stress spoiled what should have been a positive time for Cole. “I was working and spending up to 10 hours a week on this. I stopped socialising – it took over my life,” he says.

Two years on, the cupola has been replaced and some roof repairs have been carried out. Cole has finally been repaid the money after threatening to take the uncooperative owners to court. “I’m pleased about that, but it’s an old building and it will continue to require maintenance,” he says. “I know how the system works better than I did, and have the contact details of the other owners, which is helpful, but the way the law is set up, and the lack of support from local government, means it continues to be a massive pain to get basic repairs done.”

Cole’s experience is not unusual. His story is one of many collected by Under One Roof Scotland – an online advice service set up to help flat owners navigate the system – as evidence for the cross-party Tenement Maintenance Working Group. The website was inundated with flat owners describing friction between neighbours, windows allowed to deteriorate beyond repair, debts owed and court actions: all illustrating the need for change.

When it comes to housing policy, the Scottish Government’s focus is very much on the construction of affordable new homes; it is committed to building 50,000 by 2021. But the failure to maintain and repair existing housing is causing serious problems across the country.

According to the Scottish House Condition Survey, 50 per cent of Scottish housing is in a state of critical disrepair, and almost half of this demands urgent attention. Two thirds of housing constructed over 100 years ago is in a state of critical repair and a third requires both urgent and critical attention. But the problem is not limited to older properties. A quarter of housing built after 1982 is also in a state of critical disrepair while 8 per cent requires urgent attention.

The failure to maintain such buildings makes life difficult for individual occupants. But there are also wider safety concerns. Back in 2000, Australian student Christine Foster died after being hit by falling masonry as she waited tables in Ryan’s Bar in Edinburgh’s West End. More recently, as Storm Brendan battered Edinburgh, safety experts were called out to 17 reports of falling masonry in a single day; in one incident, the stonework narrowly missed a pedestrian.

“Just about every day I pull loose stuff off buildings in Edinburgh,” says Stewart Inkster, of Edinburgh Stonemasons. “Most of the time I get called in to fix aesthetic stuff round doorways. I will say: ‘Look – this is loose.’ Then I talk them into spending the money wisely instead of wasting it on making things look good.”

Inkster says many owners tell him they are forever brushing up bits of rubble. “People with money and people without money are just as bad at leaving their stonework in a poor condition. Stone masonry isn’t sexy any more – they’d rather get a new car or a new kitchen.”

Experts including Douglas Robertson, recently retired professor of housing at Stirling University, believe that if nothing is done to improve the situation, we could see a repeat of the havoc wreaked on Glasgow in 1968.

That winter a hurricane destroyed 300 houses and damaged 70,000 more. “We are already seeing the partial collapse of some tenements,” says Robertson, whose landmark report, Why Flats Fall Down, has just been published by umbrella body Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS). “It’s impossible to know for sure if what happened in 1968 could happen again until it is too late, but there must be a risk.”

Poor maintenance of existing buildings also has implications for climate change. “You could argue some of the older stock is less efficient in terms of fuel consumption, but the embodied energy within those buildings trumps that,” explains Euan Leitch, director of BEFS. “If we demolish buildings and then rebuild we are using a huge amount of carbon that isn’t compensated by a more energy-efficient building.”

The deterioration of Scotland’s housing stock continued to be an issue after the mass slum clearances of the 70s. In 1967, the Cullingworth Report introduced a quality measure, Below Tolerable Standard (BTS), to define housing in an unacceptable state of repair. Councils were told to carry out surveys to identify BTS buildings in their own areas.

They were then encouraged to take a carrot and stick approach. The stick consisted of powers which allowed them to compel owners to make their properties habitable within a specific time period. The carrot consisted of improvement grants to support the building work.

This proved highly successful. But as slum housing began to decline, the Scottish Office began to tire of the costs and by the mid-90s it was looking for a way to shift responsibility for maintaining properties back on to the owners.

Set up in 2000 to look at how to bring about the shift, the Housing Improvement Task Force (HITF) said: “Our starting point has been the belief that the responsibility for the upkeep of houses in the private sector lies first and foremost with their owners, and that there is a need for greater awareness and acceptance by owners of this responsibility.”

Some of the HITF’s recommendations were introduced in various acts, including the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006. But Robertson’s report makes it clear they did not achieve the desired effect. “If anything, matters appear to have got worse,” he says. “For example initiating statutory action for serious disrepair, without the backing of enhanced grant subsidy, has resulted in a marked demise in the undertaking of such major works.

“With local authorities reluctant to commit their own resources, they pull back from pursuing such action. Further, the hope the home-owner would step in and fill that space, armed only with basic information and advice, has not surprisingly failed to produce a changed culture in respect of repair and maintenance practice.”

According to Robertson, the problems were exacerbated by the economic crash in 2008. Tighter restrictions round mortgages led to an increase in private lets amongst those at the bottom end of the market. The rise of Airbnbs has heightened that short-termism, while the financial pressure on councils means they only intervene when the situation reaches crisis point.

This is what has happened in Glasgow. In 2017, the local authority became the first in Scotland to be granted powers to designate an Enhanced Enforcement Area (EEA) for Govanhill. The following year, it teamed up with Govan Housing to upgrade 295 pre-1919 buildings in 33 blocks in Ibrox and Cessnock.

Some local authorities run Missing Shares schemes – where the council will stump up the portion of money being withheld by uncooperative owners (and put a debt on their property). But they only pay out where the individual share is £500 or more and the money cannot be claimed retrospectively. “We had 16 owners so the total repair would have had to cost £8,000 or more for us to be eligible,” explains Cole.

The cost of Edinburgh’s short-lived statutory notice scheme, which allowed the council to force homeowners to make repairs to shared tenements, trebled from £9.5m to £30m between 2005 and 2010, and it was scrapped amid allegations of bribes and corruption.

Meanwhile buildings, old and new, continue to fall into a state of disrepair across the country. “The block of modern flats next to the old Co-op building in Glasgow is a complete disaster area,” says Robertson.

“The factors walked away because no-one was paying. They have pumps in the basement to stop the Clyde coming in and prostitutes working in the close because they could get access, so the stair lighting was going to get cut off. The council was forced to bring in a factor to try to run it. These properties are probably not worth anything now.

“The problem is [the laws were drawn up] on the assumption blocks would be inhabited by nice owner-occupiers, and they would all get on chummily and clean their stairs, and unfortunately that’s not the way it works.”

Many owners are under-insured for fire or weather damage and few developments have reserve funds. There are multi-storey blocks where the owners have not set aside funds to replace the lift when it reaches the end of its life.

The Tenement Maintenance Working Group, comprised of MSPs, surveyors, factors and other interested parties, was set up in March 2018 to try to find “stabilising solutions to aid, assist and compel owners of tenement properties to maintain their buildings”.

It came up with a three-pronged approach: a five-yearly inspection of all flatted properties, a properly constituted owners’ association to implement the survey’s recommendations and a compulsory reserve fund to ensure there was money available to pay for the work.

Neil Watt, chairman of Hacking and Paterson Management Services, which provides property factoring services, is a member of the working group. He also served on the HITF which made similar recommendations in the early 2000s.

“This is nothing new or ground-breaking – it happens in many other progressive countries,” he says. “It happens in most US states, it happens in Australia, it happens in France.” In many US condominiums, those who do not pay into the reserve fund or maintain their property are forced to leave.

Robertson’s report was commissioned by the BEFS to add independent weight to the working group’s conclusions and to provide a longer-term perspective. Since 2004, there have been different housing standards for different types of ownership. Local authorities/housing associations are covered by the Scottish Housing Quality Standard and private rentals by the Repairing Standard. Owner occupiers can do more or less as they wish so long as their property doesn’t fall Below Tolerable Standard. “My idea is we should introduce a national standard, then put in a set of procedures to ensure this quality is met,” Robertson says.

He also wants the legislation around the title deeds of flatted properties overhauled.

“Other countries have accepted that living in a flat is different to living in a house. I think any type of flatted property ought to have a different set of title arrangements which signify there is a joint ownership arrangement within this property as opposed to the ad hoc arrangements we currently have.”

Just before Christmas, the Scottish Government published its response to the working party’s recommendations.

It was broadly supportive, promising to engage with the Scottish Law Commission on the three-pronged approach. And yet this line – “We must not address poor housing condition at the cost of pricing out some of the most vulnerable in society from their homes” – has raised concerns it is shying away from making these measures compulsory. The working group members I spoke to insist that, so long as there is no compulsion on owners to comply, buildings will continue to fall into disrepair.

“The government says it doesn’t 
want to harm people who are poor – and that’s fine, but if the person is poor and can’t afford to maintain the house, it means the other seven people in the block are unable to have a quality of life. I think that’s a serious issue,” says Robertson.

If the Scottish Government isn’t convinced by this, there are other incentives, such as public safety and the increased strain on public finances.

As far as safety is concerned, why should a five-yearly housing inspection be controversial when everyone accepts motor vehicles have to meet minimum standards before they can be legally driven? “A car which costs, say, £10,000 has to have an annual MOT and yet property worth millions or even billions of pounds doesn’t have to have similar accreditation,” says Watt.

When it comes to finances, you only have to look at Glasgow to understand the scale of the problem. With 46,000 city flats in need of an upgrade, a £2.6bn bill has been predicted.

“If there is not a compulsion on owners to get on with this it is going to fall back on local authorities,” says Watt.

Robertson, who has spent his working life raising these issues, agrees. But having watched successive administrations fail to address the situation, he is not optimistic about the chances of real change.

“The Scottish House Condition data reveals we are in the midst of a serious crisis, but the government chooses to look the other way. I think it will only act if it perceives an emergency: a crisis like Govanhill; or even another death,” he says.