The discovery that £153 million of repairs are needed to council-owned buildings in Edinburgh after years of neglect is alarming enough, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg.
The extent of the problems was only discovered after a major review of the state of its property, including schools, libraries, community centres and even the City Chambers itself. The bigger concern is how many councillors and officials in other local authorities are waking up this morning to the sickening realisation that Edinburgh may not be alone in sitting on such a “ticking time bomb”.
Edinburgh obviously had more reason than most to check the state of its buildings, following the collapse of a brick wall at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016. A report concluded that no children died only because of “timing and luck” after nine tonnes of masonry fell onto an area where pupils could have been standing.
Scottish councils have been forced to make swingeing cutbacks as the funding they receive from the Scottish Government has been cut by 7.6 per cent in real terms since 2010-11, They have been draining their reserves of cash to help maintain services, but the Accounts Commission warned in November that some could run out of such “rainy day funds” in two to three years. Councils are also spending almost 10 per cent of the budget for day-to-day running costs on servicing their growing debts.
With this in mind, the idea they could be hit by a large, unexpected repair bill is the last thing many councillors will want to hear.
But they should consider this. Of Edinburgh’s 560 operational buildings, 80 had major defects or were potentially at “risk of failure” – that’s nearly 15 per cent. Finance convener Alasdair Rankin frankly admitted the “primary concern is health and safety and making sure buildings are wind and watertight”.
Unless the city council has been unusually lax in looking after its property, the scale of the repair work required in Edinburgh can be treated as an indication of the likely situation in buildings across Scotland. Edinburgh council’s report on the necessary repairs admitted the maintenance budget had been allowed to fall over the past 20 years. City councillor Gavin Corbett suggested the rot had actually set in 40 years ago or more.
If that’s the case, then Edinburgh’s not-so-little local difficulty may escalate into a national crisis.