Assets and Liabilities


Walking home today, I passed some roadworkers who were renewing the road surface. The contractors strap line being “Safe in the Knowledge”. However the firm clearly didn’t have the knowledge, or possibly care, to wash out their cement mixer at the end of the day so two workers were trying to chisel out the concrete that had set hard in the concrete mixer drum which had been used the previous day.

We don’t really talk much about maintenance, it’s new work that we always think is needed. But the lack of maintenance of our houses, and particularly our pre 1919 tenements, is turning what is an asset into a liability. This applies to our railway stations, our pavements and streets and our infrastructure.

We recognise that ‘sure start’ and early intervention into children’s upbringing can bring long listing changes to the child’s health and future prospects. Investing in exercise, clean water and air as well as healthy food will reduce our dependency on NHS services. Ensuring we have a valid MOT should make our cars safer and less polluting as well as highlighting the need for maintenance.

Without regular maintenance, the built fabric declines very quickly. Gutters become blocked with debris, water overflows over the face of a building and walls become so damp that they don’t dry out. This is increasingly a problem in our wet Scottish winters where rainfall levels have doubled in the last twenty years. Wet walls lead to wet timbers, wet joist ends and timber lintels. They soon rot and the rot can spread unnoticed to neighbouring flats.

Most owners think they should only care about their own individual house, leaving a Factor or neighbours to attend to the common fabric. But poorly maintained properties soon loose their value, and this leads to a further lack of investment from neighbouring owners. Assets turn into Liabilities.

“Right to Buy” increased the sale of Council and Housing Association stock. People saw quickly that a mortgage was cheaper than the rent they paid and believed that owning a flat would give them an asset. Particularly when large discounts were offered on the sale of council property. However the costs of regular maintenance were rarely factored in and it is no surprise when owners now turn to Local Authorities to help with grant aid to carry out essential repairs.

That time is long past as Local Authorities do not have the cash to help owner occupiers. Owners have to realise that it is in their best interest to invest in maintenance if they are to maintain their one asset.

However the legal requirement for maintenance of the common fabric is anything but clear. Whether it is the law of the tenement, or what is in the title deeds, or what is ‘commonly agreed’ is open to wide interpretation. What is needed is a clear legal requirement to manage the maintenance of commonly owned property, which after all is essentially an asset that has been handed down through generations and forms the public realm which we now inhabit.

This is only likely to come about through a change of legislation and the topic is being discussed by the Scottish Parliamentary Working Group on Tenement Maintenance.

We need to ensure that the common fabric of tenements is being maintained if they are to provide housing fit for the 21st century. There is no reason why older tenements, mostly built before 1919, shouldn’t last another 100 years as they usually have better space standards, are more robust and are located centrally, than new houses. Yes, they need to be better insulated, but unless they are first of all maintained, insulation values will remain poor (new houses also need to be maintained so any change in tenement law should apply to all of the tenemental stock).

The present proposals which are being considered by the working Group would require:

  • a full technical inspection of the common fabric carried out every five years so that owners, and future owners, would know the properties condition and what repairs were needed. This would be included with any ‘Home Report’ prepared on the sale of a flat.
  • Each set of owners would be required to form an Owners Association who would have responsibility for ensuring the building was maintained and have a joint bank account.
  • A tenement ‘Building Reserve Fund’ should be set up for the future maintenance of the common fabric. Owners would pay into this non returning savings account so that funds were there for any major repair in future

Such a change would begin to change the culture of neglect which besets our cities and towns although it may not address the fact that in poor areas, funds will be harder to come by, yet the repairs needed can be greater, and more costly, than those in a richer middle class area.

Perhaps here, the money gathered in VAT from repairs elsewhere can be distributed to those tenement pension funds in certain postcode area. But then, I would scrap VAT on all repair work. It doesn’t make any sense to discourage repairs it only makes sense to encourage them. We all benefit. Why would anyone want to live in a society that doesn’t care about the places that we all live in?

John Gilbert Architects (JGA) are offering a “The Tenement Toolbox’ as a service for tenement owners who want a full survey structured in accordance with BS7913:2013 which is the British Standard Guide to the Conservation of Listed Building.

John Gilbert is Joint Author of Under One Roof website and Head of Conservation at John Gilbert Architects.