Obituary: Ronald Cooper CEng, FICE, director of building control

Born: 12 November, 1936, in Aberdeen. Died: 13 January, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 77

Ronald Cooper. Picture: Contributed
Ronald Cooper. Picture: Contributed

Edinburgh’s director of building control, Ron Cooper, CEng, FICE was a fearless chief official, prepared when necessary to challenge anyone from casual builders to the biggest international companies and to refuse an application if the project did not meet the high safety standards he required. His judgment was relied on and trusted by the city’s management team, composed of other senior officials and by councillors who knew his professional reputation was second to none.

As long ago as 1977 he warned about the condition of buildings in Edinburgh’s city centre, stating that, if serious money – he referred to some £50 million – was not spent on repairs, much in Tollcross and the South Side could be lost in a decade.

Ron served with the Royal Engineers in Cyprus under Col Blashford-Snell and left Aberdeen for Edinburgh where, in 1975, he was one of the youngest building control directors appointed in Scotland.

The media loved working with him because when interviewed, he was never afraid to go “on the record”, using layman’s terms so his quotes would be clear.

He could spot a flaw or safety issue in applications for building control approval when it might have gone unnoticed by councillors and enjoyed a trusted, working relationship with all political parties. Few challenged his recommendations, knowing they were based on sound, extensive professional knowledge.

Apart from day-to-day questions of safety and repairs where offenders had to “obtemper” the department’s notices, Ron’s duties involved oversight of major events, including the Edinburgh International Festival, ensuring the regulations were met irrespective of who was behind the show, local, national or international interests.

He once refused to authorise a Festival opening night concert over worries about emergency lighting. The concert was being staged at a major council venue and the opening was to be attended by a distinguished audience, all in evening dress.

Visits were made, inspections carried out and discussions held with contractors prior to the opening with a final inspection on the day of the concert. When he and the convener returned to the City Chambers no one quite believed they would stop the official opening but they did. In the face of strong pressures, the committee insisted that, until all public safety regulations were met, the show could not go on.

Another evening, after normal working hours, he placed an emergency road closure on Princes Street. Stonework had dropped from the Scott Monument and he had top to shut the street to pedestrians immediately and divert traffic until the structure was safe.

He established a major review of safety at the city’s sports grounds and the committee introduced changes and improvements at main stadiums.

Early one Sunday morning, a car was being driven past Craigmillar Quarry when there was a gigantic explosion, shaking the area and scattering boulders and debris as far as Jock’s Lodge. No one was injured but research revealed that dozens of metal drums of chemicals had been stacked there when an old fireworks factory closed. They had been covered with earth and concrete but gradually rainwater seepage and corrosion had allowed the contents to mix, resulting in the explosion.

The next day revealed more dangerous drums, some burst open and others rotting. Government experts were called to examine the site which was finally emptied by lorries transporting the remaining material to an approved disposal facility.

Ron’s department was active in resolving smaller public issues too. A phone call one night from an elderly top flat resident in Marchmont Road reported “water coming in through the bedroom ceiling”. Instead of a drip, his team discovered a torrent of rainwater gushing through the ceiling plaster from a blocked roof gutter and into her bedroom.

At nearly midnight the roof was reached and temporary repairs made. Another time, historic properties in the Royal Mile were struck by a stolen vehicle resulting in structural damage. Building control staff arrived quickly to assess the situation and reassure residents.

When an elderly Morningside recluse ignored orders to repair her property for so long that it began endangering adjoining houses, Ron’s officials had to evict and make urgent repairs on her behalf. She resisted even when he arrived on eviction day, however, and police had to carry her out – but not before the department had arranged other accommodation for her.

A fanatical golfer, Ron was a member and champion of several clubs. When he married Diane in 1982, they postponed the honeymoon so that he could play in the final of the Dispatch Trophy.