Falling masonry poses a particular problem. "We get contacted 1,000 times a month on average,” said Jackie Timmons, the Edinburgh shared repairs service manager for Edinburgh Council. Timmons said there were "15 incident reports of fallen roof or stone falls alone during the high winds".
The Covid crisis may have kept residents indoors far more than usual over the last year – and absorbed much of their priorities – but the dangers of death or injury from buildings in poor condition are not to be underestimated. However, new legislation and the launch of an app that helps residents take control of maintenance issues have raised hopes of progress.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Christine Foster, a 26-year-old Australian backpacker who was visiting her father’s city of birth while working at Ryan’s Bar in the West End. The fatal accident inquiry found that due to the “shoddy” workmanship that was carried out in 1989 on the building, six coping stones, one of which was 2ft in length, became dislodged and plummeted three stories, striking Foster and injuring five others. This event has stayed in the memory of many Edinburgh residents – the arbitrary loss of a loved one in a city renowned for its beauty and architectural heritage.
At the time, Scotland’s main housing stock was dominated by tenement structures, as it still is today. In fact, 24 per cent of Scotland’s housing stock are tenements, which works out at 584,000 properties, 29 per cent of which were erected pre-1919, according to the Working Group on Maintenance of Tenement Scheme Property,
Stewart Inkster is a stonemason based in Edinburgh and has worked on private housing properties, churches and museums with his company, Edinburgh Stonemasons. For several years, Inkster has been posting videos and blogs highlighting the jobs that he has seen around the city, including worryingly loose and fragile masonry:
“Edinburgh’s just not safe. I can look up and see hundreds of dangerous things? everywhere I go… Nobody cares unless someone is hurt, that’s when people may be like, right, we need to do something. When someone else unfortunately dies, that’s when you hear: this is it, we need to do inspections. That’s why I do videos to highlight it."
“There’s probably about 100 years worth of work in Edinburgh for masons,” Inkster says.
“People are looking more at buying themselves a new kitchen – the truth is they aren’t looking at their building the way people used to. Your building was how you showed your wealth, nowadays people want to buy fancy cars.”
Affordability can pose other problems when it comes to repairs and maintenance. Inkster mentions that some parts of the city are less inclined to get works done as they may see the cost as too high; for instance, part of Leith he has worked in.
“I priced a job four times as they couldn’t get everyone in the flat to agree, and the building was falling apart.”
Balancing the need for regular upkeep with affordability is often an issue in the city. For instance, the New Town and Old Town of Edinburgh are labelled as United Nations World Heritage Sites, making some buildings eligible for grant money for repairs, but it is harder to receive this type of assistance elsewhere in the city – and this is up to the private owners of each property, shared or not. With this in mind, it is important to know where to start when looking for possible faults with your stonework, windows or roofing, Inkster says.
“It’s quite easy to spot loose masonry – once you know where to look you can gauge where it is. If people understand this, they might be able to tell if they need someone in to inspect it.”
The chance to profit from rising property prices may also be a factor behind some of the neglect. Even before the pandemic, Edinburgh was an expensive place to buy compared with almost 20 years ago. With the continuation of Airbnb lets occupying many properties across the city, strict planning conditions in the Old Town and generally demand outweighing supply, residents have seen one of the fastest-growing housing markets in the UK. This may go some way to illustrate why the priorities of people buying and selling in the city have changed, where profiteering could be winning out over longer-term considerations.
Following the death and subsequent inquiry into the incident at Ryan’s Bar, the Scottish parliament passed a bill in 2004 focusing on “the rights and duties of the owners of properties comprised in tenements” called, the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004.
Deciding and carrying out maintenance repair was often determined by what was already set out in the title deeds of a particular property. If work was needed and not everyone in the stair had a clear knowledge of what they owned in the tenement, or how to share costs, then buildings might go years without seeing a single thing done. Property deeds are still needed today to arrange works or determine liability, but if an owner lacks information from their deeds, they can refer to the 'Tenement Management Scheme'. This helps to fill in the gaps if an owner is unsure of what they own and helps to explain what counts as maintenance.
The act also sought to create a system that allowed for a majority vote. No longer would everyone have to be unanimous for work to be carried out, but a common understanding between owners over the repairs needed could be agreed upon more easily.
"People also need to remember when they are buying a property, it isn't just the flat you're buying, it's parts of the stairs, the roof and the stonework," says Timmons.
She has previous experience as a chartered surveyor and currently offers free advice to help owners organise and arrange for repairs to take place with Edinburgh council's Shared Repair Service.
The predecessor of this current service was the property conservation department, and in 2011 it emerged that hundreds of Edinburgh residents had complained about billing costs of repairs to their buildings.
The system in place at the time allowed the Edinburgh council to arrange for work to be carried out through a statutory notice of essential repairs.
The repairs were carried out by council-approved contractors, and when a number of owners came forward to complain about unnecessary work and costs to their property, some officials took little notice and damaged public trust by doing so.
The current service now operates in a different way as public trust is rebuilt through the council. Advice and assistance is now the main channels used in order to help owners and tenants solve issues with their property.
One of these recommendations is that residents club together to pay for a survey as a pre-emptive measure.
“I’d suggest getting a survey done. They can be from £1,000 to £1,500 for the whole tenement, then you have an idea of what needs to be done.”
Timmons and her team have been working on an app through the Scottish government initiative Civtech in order to find an entrepreneurial tech innovation for tenement maintenance. They have been working in partnership with the technology company, Novoville, to develop, “a virtual tenement app”, which they are hoping will be launched in March.
“The app is totally unique, not just a platform for owners to discuss and make decisions — it goes much further by creating photographic repair reports, taking votes, working out cost shares, notifying ‘scheme’ decisions, getting quotes from traders and providing a tenement bank account for collecting funds and paying contractors.”
Councillor Rob Munn, convener of the finance and resources committee, said: “a tremendous amount of work has gone into producing this app and it’s fantastic news that it’s now available for people to use. There are around 170,000 tenement flats and other shared buildings with multiple owners in Edinburgh and a lot of these buildings are still in need of urgent repair. This app will make it much easier for owners to get together and take responsibility for their buildings.”
Timmons was part of the working group of maintenance of tenement scheme property and argues that the 2004 bill is good for owners but does not provide a greater obligation to maintain a building. Three of the main takeaways of that report were:
The ‘scheme property’ of all tenements should be inspected every five years and a report prepared that will be publicly available to existing or prospective owners and tenants, neighbours and policy makers.
Greater protection for owners who might otherwise be held individually responsible for the whole group’s debts.
The core of the original proposals was that Building Reserve Funds (BRF) should be held in a specially established national or regional level fund, in the form of a social investment fund.
The new legislation and app will give Edinburgh better tools to tackle this issue, Timmons says. Residents also need to recognise that maintenance is a price worth paying. Or, as Inkster says: "What price do you put on safety?"
Here is a collection of images of examples to look out for when looking up at yours or others buildings in Edinburgh: