Scottish Housing: the failure of maintenance

Scotland has over half a million flats, most in the form of tenements or where the common fabric of the building is shared amongst a number of owners.

In the West of Scotland, the management of such properties has traditionally been carried out by factors acting on behalf of owners or landlords. In Edinburgh, the council was predominantly used to issue section notices to facilitate the repair of tenements.

Owners of most tenement flats do try to carry out essential repairs, although they are usually of a short term nature and agreement with all owners to finance any repair is fraught with difficulties. Increasingly, more flats are simply not repaired because of the failure to gain agreement, afford the repairs or have the work carried out under a Section Notice.

In the past, tenements with flats that failed to meet the ‘tolerable standard’ or have ‘standard amenities’ could be declared a housing action area and grants were made available to owners to help with this. Indeed, in the past, grant aid was also provided to help remedy ‘serious disrepair’. Housing action areas are now ‘housing renewal areas’, however there is little or no funding for such schemes.

Any owner of a property needs to ensure they set aside monies to maintain it. However, in tenements and housing which shares the common fabric with other owners, there is a growing tendency amongst owners to think that it is down to their council to manage the maintenance of the property. People often don’t want to talk to their neighbours about common issues and don’t see it as their responsibility to act together to maintain the building.

The push to create a nation of owner-occupiers has entirely failed to be accompanied by procedures which would require every flat owner to know about their responsibilities for building repairs and the likely costs of future maintenance.

As an architect who has worked in the housing sector for the past 40 years, I see increasing evidence of how the laws on common ownership and tenement repair are not fit for purpose.

I recently visited a row of Victorian stone tenements in the centre of Paisley. Whilst it was clear that there were some structural problems (one oriel has had shoring to support it over the last ten years), cracks were evident at a number of cills and lintels higher up. Internally, the floors and timbers embedded in the outer walls were rotten. Gutters were defective or blocked, downpipes cracked, unpainted and leaking. Close stairs are damaged and clearly a trip hazard.

Pigeons fly in and out of the top floor toilet extension which were added after the 1892 Burgh Police Act which required all properties to have internal access to a toilet. Over 120 years later, the toilets are still in place and accessed off the half landings, although now the disused toilets are full of old bikes and household rubbish. The manhole at the rear is open and clearly overflowing. The backcourt is overgrown and strewn with rubbish. Certainly not a place to bring up children, if there are any. The houses seem to sell for around £20-30,000. Some flat owners have simply left their flat rather than try to repair it.

From a cursory inspection, it is clear that all the flats require to be extensively repaired and modernised. Had they been repaired and maintained over the last decade, they would not require intervention from the council.

Some owners, faced with the problem of dry rot, seek help from their environmental health department. It is true that they have powers to issue enforcement notices on owners who fail to rectify a nuisance. If the defect is of a structural nature then maybe the building control department will issue a notice to the owners to make the defect safe. However, councils will not step in to fund such repairs, even though they could place a lean on the property, to help recover the cost of any repair. Councils believe it is not their responsibility to restore property that is not in their ownership, particularly when they don’t have sufficient funding for the rest of the services they have to provide.

They are correct in this, however the result of inaction, or the lack of any legal or financial repercussions on recalcitrant owners, means that enforcement orders are largely toothless and ineffective. The properties then continue to decline to a point where decay leads to demolition.

The problem is not confined to Victorian tenements. Previously owned council stock which now has mixed ownership, is faced with a similar problem. Unless a clear majority of owners agree to a repair or improvement, basic maintenance does not get done. Gutters and downpipes are left unpainted, eventually to rust and leak, common areas not maintained and cracks and render left to deteriorate further.

Basic standards of repair and maintenance cannot be managed by resorting to public health legislation which limits itself to what is considered to be causing a ‘nuisance’, or to building control departments who may decide on a chimney or part of the fabric being ‘unsafe’.

I would argue that we need to approach the problem in two ways:

  • By requiring a minimum standard of repair on any property which is occupied or vacant, whether or not the result of the disrepair is deemed a nuisance. That where there is disrepair, warning notices are issued and failure to act on the notice would result in the work being paid for by the council and recovered from owners, with those owners who fail to fund the repair having to sell their flat.
  • By requiring all owners of properties in common ownership to have their names, addresses and contact details recorded in a publicly managed database. All owners who have a share of the property would also be able to access the names and details of other owners at their address. Absent owners should be required either to be accessible or to be represented by an authorised agent.
  • That it would be a requirement for the sale of any property to also have a copy of a full common survey report (as an addition to the home report) carried out by a professionally registered surveyor, architect or engineer. That the survey report should be no older than five years old. This would encourage owners to organise quinquennial inspections of their property. The report would be held on the publicly managed database.

Our housing in Scotland needs a legal and administrative system to ensure our tenements are maintained for future generations.

John Gilbert is the author of The Tenement Handbook, a conservation accredited architect and is currently working on a new guide for tenement owners called ‘Under One Roof’, which will be launched in Summer 2016.