Former leader expects some officials will go to jail, writes Brian Ferguson
ITS origins lie in the tragic death of an Australian waitress on a summer’s day in Edinburgh’s West End. The legacy of Christine Foster’s death as she served drinks at Ryan’s Bar is a mounting scandal enveloping the city council like an ever-spreading virus. The tragedy, in June 2000, was meant to inspire a complete overhaul of the capital’s historic buildings in the aftermath of a string of similar incidents.
Instead, it has seen the police called in to investigate the council’s repair service for urgent work, widespread allegations of corruption, mismanagement and fraud, the sackings of six staff to date and the ongoing suspension of another 13.
And it is about to get a whole lot worse. The Scotsman has learned Lothian and Borders Police is about to submit a report to the procurator-fiscal that is expected to recommend criminal charges are brought against several council staff.
A former council leader, who was in charge for part of the time the system was in place, admits he expects some council workers to go to jail. At least six police officers are thought to have been dedicated to the case in recent months.
Publication of an external consultant’s report, commissioned more than a year ago from Deloitte, has been put back until after next month’s election and may not see the light of day because of pending legal cases – some from the council against contractors it has already paid out to.
The council is also facing an investigation by Scotland’s auditor general amid claims its own investigation has dragged on too long, is being delayed by unco-operative staff and is shrouded in secrecy.
Audit Scotland has told The Scotsman it is “closely monitoring” the investigations.
Politicians calling for swifter action over the affair believe the council’s failure to get a grip of widespread concerns when they were first raised more than five years ago is set to leave the city with a “disastrous” legacy”.
The figures at the centre of the scandal are already eye-watering, even although none of the official investigations, which have centred on the council’s property conservation section, has been completed.
BEFORE councillors were stripped of a role overseeing “statutory repairs” on buildings in 2005, their annual cost was £9.2 million. Fast forward to 2010, when the local authority agreed to an internal audit under pressure from local politicians, it emerged that the bill had soared to £30m.
That was only the beginning. Since then, more than 870 complaints over the service have emerged, surrounding 550 repair jobs. There have been claims customers may have been over-charged by as much as £13.5m for repairs.
But under the council’s system for carrying out such repairs, an even bigger sum has already been paid out by the council to contractors, to the tune of £30m.
Just one substantial report on the investigations – which are costing the taxpayer at least £1.8m – has been produced by the city council, in October last year, by which time it emerged more than 513 formal complaints were being pursued against the authority.
By then, the local authority was besieged by allegations about people being overcharged, substandard materials being used, contractors being given jobs despite not being on an approved list of firms, confidential information being disclosed to certain firms, and council staff receiving unofficial payments and undisclosed hospitality.
Gordon Murdie, a quantity surveyor who has represented dozens of clients affected by the affair, said he expected the eventual cost to the taxpayer to top £200m.
“This is likely to run for another five years, when you consider that they’ve not resolved any of these complaints yet,” he said.
One alleged victim is Bruce Thompson, a pensioner, who lives in Comely Bank, whose battle with the council has been going on for more than three years. Initial estimates for a simple roof repair for the cost of repairing a leak in his communal stair soared from an initial £700 for his block of flats to more than £230,000.
The 66-year-old said: “It was clear that the council’s own officials did not adequately control the contract and costs were just allowed to escalate to a point where it became an embarrassment to the council.
“I will not be paying the scandalous increased costs and intend to pursue all options against the council and the contractor.”
The council was dogged by problems over falling masonry in the wake of the Christine Foster tragedy, sparking a campaign to alert property owners to their responsibilities, and pledging to step up efforts to monitor problem “hot spots”.
But sources close to the investigation have told The Scotsman there are fears of the long-term impact of the investigation on the city’s historic buildings – particularly after two harsh winters previous to the latest one.
ONE insider said: “The impact of the Christine Foster case had a real influence on the council ten years ago, after the public inquiry report recommended greater monitoring of historic buildings.
“It has helped create the whole culture in the property conservation section and has been used to justify the need to carry out urgent repairs, but that has been abused so much that the real worry is things may slip dangerously back and another tragedy may occur.”
Anne McMenamin, 76, is the owner of a flat in Gorgie Road, where a chunk of masonry fell on to the street last July.
She said: “Thankfully, no-one was injured, and scaffolding went up the week after the masonry fall, but there hasn’t been any work carried out since, as we can’t get the council to do it.”
With the council already facing the prospect of a public inquiry into the handling of the tram project, another damaging investigation looms.
Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack has revealed she will ask Audit Scotland to investigate the statutory repairs service. She said: “Investigation of the problem must be independent of the council if we are to be sure that lessons will be learned. I’m calling on Audit Scotland to look into the issue to address not only Edinburgh’s problems, but to inform good practice across Scotland.”
If councillors, now gearing up for an election campaign, thought they could forget about the affair for a few months, they are likely to be in for a shock at the last full council meeting before the poll, on 26 April, when property owners will stage a protest outside the City Chambers.
Former council leader Ewan Aitken said: “This whole affair has been a utter scandal that has caused untold anguish for many of Edinburgh’s citizens.”
He added: “I believe that we will see people, including some officers of the council, go to jail for what has happened.”
Stefan Tymkewycz, an SNP councillor who raised his first concerns almost five years ago, shortly after his party formed a coalition with the Lib Dems to run the authority, said: “I’m sure criminal charges will follow.”
A spokeswoman for the city council said: “Work is continuing on dealing with the individual complaints, and we expect that the panel will have met to discuss the first cases in May.
“It has not been possible to make some information available because of the ongoing police investigation and our own investigation.
“The council may also seek to recover costs from others if it is possible to do so. This also has to be taken into account when considering what information is put into the public domain.
“Within these constraints, as officers, our aim will be to provide as much information as is possible, both to councillors and the public.”
She added: “We believe the police are nearing the end of their investigation. They will report to the procurator-fiscal ,and only then will it be apparent if any criminal charges will be made.”
Sue Bruce, the council’s chief executive, said: “Our investigations, as they have progressed, have raised further questions that need to be addressed.
“While a quick resolution may be ideal, it is more important for everyone that our work on the serious allegations is both thorough and completed properly.
“Ultimately, our aim is to restore confidence in an important system for ensuring the quality of our housing and built heritage.”
A spokesman for Audit Scotland: “We have been closely monitoring the situation regarding investigations into the statutory notices department at Edinburgh City Council.
“We are doing this through our normal audit process and through the shared risk assessment that we carry out with other scrutiny bodies.”
A spokesman for Lothian & Borders Police said: “Our inquiries are ongoing.”