Ian Swanson: Leaving no stone unturned to mend crumbling homes

LITTLE more than 50 years ago, a five-storey tenement in Beaumont Place, Dumbiedykes, collapsed. Some residents, including a baby, fell through ceilings from one floor to another. Luckily no-one was killed, although 18 families were left homeless. But the collapse on 21 November, 1959 was not due to a gas explosion or any kind of natural disaster – the building had just been neglected for so long that its back wall eventually fell out.

The infamous "Penny Tenement" collapse – so-called because the landlord had once offered to sell the property for one penny – prompted the demolition of thousands of slum homes in Edinburgh, but also paved the way for a much stricter approach to building repairs in the Capital.

Last week, it emerged there are currently 800 repair contracts worth a total of 28 million under way in Edinburgh, while the rest of Scotland has only 1.3m of repairs going on.

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That sparked calls for an inquiry – to which council chiefs have agreed – into whether the council is overusing its powers to force repairs on private properties.

Edinburgh is the only local authority in Scotland able to hire contractors to carry out urgent work and then recover the cost from residents or businesses. Typically, these statutory notices are used on tenement properties where several property owners are involved.

By comparison, Glasgow only issues statutory orders for demolition (about six a year) when buildings have been neglected so long they are unsalvageable. It has no authority to step in and enforce repairs.

At the same time, according to Tim Rayner, senior surveyor in Edinburgh City Council's property conservation department, many of the Capital's buildings are just at that critical age where things start to go wrong.

"There was a huge building boom between 1870 and 1910 and a lot of stonework in these buildings is starting to show weathering," he says.

"When I started 23 years ago we did very little stonework, but now the vast majority of our work is stone repairs.

"Most of the tenements and many other buildings in the city are now 100 years old or more and built out of Scottish sandstone. People may not realise that 100 years is the approximate life of that stone. It's porous and mineral rich so it traps moisture and degrades. On top of that, some builders used the stone 'on the cant', or against the grain, making it even weaker. Sandstone is very, very expensive to replace."

The deterioration depends on the quality of the stone, but the Scottish weather takes its toll.

Mr Rayner says it is the south-west side of any building in the city where the worst decay is found because that's where the wind and rain come from.

Mr Rayner recalls a young couple who bought their first tenement home with a 100 per cent mortgage for 110,000. He says: "They moved in at 4pm and noticed a bit of masonry had fallen off. The call came into us and by 6pm the scaffolding was erected. The stone repairs took two years to complete and cost each tenement flat in the block 60,000.

"Since the abolition of rateable value and introduction of personal council tax, we have no authority to apportion liability. The law says it's equally divided."

In one case, a girl had a one-bedroom flat in a block and had to pay equal shares with everyone else for expensive stone repair, including the owner of a double upper with eight bedrooms.

Cast iron downpipes also have a life span of around 100 years. They rot from the inside so by the time you see external signs, it's advanced.

In addition, Scottish slate, which makes up most of the city roofscape, is also expected to last for 100 years.

City estate agent Leslie Deans says tenements in areas like Marchmont and Comely Bank are a testament to the quality of construction that took place.

He says statutory repair notices are a necessary part of the system. "The vast majority of people are decent, law- abiding folk and when the roof needs repaired they will contribute their share. But there has to be a mechanism to force the proprietor who ignores his obligations into doing something."

Mr Deans argues, however, that statutory notices should be "a last resort" and warns if repairs are done under the auspices of the council, it will add a 17.5 per cent administration charge. "My advice to anyone served with such a notice is to get together with the other proprietors, get an estimate from reputable contractors and appoint one of them to do the work."

ADVICE FOR HOMEOWNERS

• Get a professional to look at your building once a year and carry out a detailed survey every five years to understand the condition of the property. If problems are identified, act on them.

• Carrying out a series of small repairs as and when problems arise is better than waiting for something big to go wrong, which will end up costing a lot more.

• If there does seem to be a major problem, talk to your neighbours and keep control of the situation yourselves rather than leave it to the council to serve a statutory notice. The council's Homeworks service can offer advice on drawing up an agreement. Ring 0131-529 7240 or e-mail [email protected]

• If the council has to step in and serve a statutory notice, Homeworks also offers advice on arrangements to meet what can often be a large bill.