Tenement living seems to be an ingrained part of the Scottish psyche, particularly in larger urban areas. Look at any aerial photograph of Edinburgh and Glasgow and what will distinguish both from an English city is the row upon row of three- and four-storey tenement buildings set out in a grid pattern. Indeed in this respect Scotland is more akin to many European urban centres, particularly in Germany and Austria, than to our souther neighbours.
And its appeal seems to cross the class structure as there are tenement areas that could be described as upper, middle, or working and, let’s face it, also underclass. But while a majority of tenement dwellers are from lower-income groups, many who work in the professions and who could quite easily afford a detached house in the suburbs nevertheless prefer tenement life, albeit in a high-value area.
However, many of Scotland’s habitable tenements are more than a century old and it’s an ever-growing matter of concern. It’s not that they are “showing their age” – the late Victorian/Edwardian design of the tenement has stood the test of time with the public – it’s what’s going on, unseen, within the walls, on the roofs and in the foundations. A report published toward the end of last year claimed that 46,000 tenement flats built before 1919 in Glasgow required fairly urgent structural work.
For this reason, interim recommendations published last month by the Scottish Parliamentary Working Group on Tenement Maintenance (following a study in tandem with Built Environment Forum Scotland and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) have come at a crucial time.
One of three main recommendations is the establishment of compulsory owners associations and that these should become bodies corporate, enabling them to enter into contracts, employ managers and procure building works.
A long-standing method of paying for common repairs in tenement properties is for households (whether owner-occupiers or landlords letting out to tenants) to contribute to a “sinking fund”. Yet, a common problem has been the reluctance of one or more owners in a “stair” to contribute – and at times it is a struggle to even make contact with owners who live abroad.
However, in proposing that sinking funds be made compulsory, the report also recommends that monies owed to the fund by any owner reluctant to contribute should be taken from equity resulting from any consequent sale of their property, plus a surcharge based on previous lost interest to the fund. If there is insufficient equity from the sale, the money owed will be the responsibility of the new owner.
At first glance this may seem unfair to purchasers but they will be made aware, in advance, of any outstanding debt owed to the fund which, one assumes, will be reflected in a lower asking price. It also seems to me a good way of incentivising reluctant or hard-to-reach owners not to drag their feet and to pay into the fund timeously like everyone else.
So that structural problems do not re-appear several decades on, it is also recommended that each tenement block be subject to inspection at least every five years and that this be carried out by an architect or chartered building surveyor. Inspection of buildings located in conservation areas may also require the services of someone with a special qualification in that field. The inspection should indicate the condition of all shared parts using four categories: immediate or urgent; necessary; desirable; “no reportable defects”.
As head of a letting agency with a substantial number of tenement flats under management I have first-hand knowledge of the angst common repairs can cause (especially problems involving the roof where a top-floor flat has permanent water ingress while those on the ground floor are not directly affected). The working party recommendations, therefore, point the way to a solvable solution and are clearly a step in the right direction.
- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander