Scotland's Property Scandal
BBC Scotland Investigates
There are 200,000 people working in the building trade in Scotland.
But, can you spot the professionals from the cowboys? I'm in Edinburgh, a
city renowned for its magnificent architecture. But, I've been looking at
its attempts to conserve these buildings and uncovered allegations of
fraud and institutional corruption at the heart of Scotland's capital
Edinburgh has some of the most historic buildings in the world, but
could an attempt to save that history sometimes be hastening its decline
and ripping off the people who live there at the same time?
New Comely Bank near the centre of Edinburgh is home to Bruce
"We had a minor roof leak for qhich we were quoted 760 odd
pounds by a contractor" But, to make sure all his neighbours were
happy and to ensure his tenement was watertight again he called an
officer from the council. Bruce "He had one quick look at it and
decided it probably needed a new roof and he would report back to his
boss. The next we heard was a statutory notive telling us we were to
have a new roof"
The statutory notice Bruce is referring to is a power that only the
City of Edinburgh Council has, to keep its unique buildings in good
order. It means owners have to pay for the works stipulated by the
council whether they like it or not.
But, back at Bruce's, it seemed the builders weren't just on the
roof. Bruce "The work went on and on, more and more scaffolding was
appearing and we began to get a bit worried" As it tuwns out, Bruce
was right to be worried. The council decided his building didn't just
need a new roof, but a whole load of other work.
Bruce "We just kept seeing big chucks of stone being carted up
onto the roof, the contactors were polite and civil but they'd been
advised they weren't to speak to us about anything there was certainly
no communication about cost. We'd received a letter and it tells the
surveyor quite clearly, on no account give these clients any indication
of cost" So you were expected, effectively, to have your
cheque book open.
In frustration, he used frredom of information laws to ask for
details. He felt it was the only way he could find out what the
builders were doing to his own home.
Finally, he received files and files of paperwork, but they weren't
exactly enlightening. Some of the freedom of information responses, so
heavily blacked-out, literally, told him nothing at all, but tucked away
in the pages was an email from a council official describing attempts to
find out about the building work as a 'moan letter'.
The council now admit the email was totally unacceptable.
The council decided to use it unique statutory notice power again.
This time to get builders to overhaul the back wall at Bruce's tenement
whilst they were fixing the roof. A job costing tens of thousands extra.
Bruce was told it would cost around £760 to fix the leak, but after
the council got involved his bill leapt to more than £300,000, almost a
third of a million. When asked if he was happy with the work done, he
said emphatically "NO"
In another case the council has put a statutory notice on the
building. Again its left the owners no choice about what work is being
done. It turns out Emma-Jane Condon has also had a leaky roof in her
tenement. Emma-Jane and her neighbours were told they could expect a
£90,000 repair bill to fix the roof, but then curious things started to
happen. Cracks in the ceiling appeared when the men were working. Then
the council had been using their superpower again. Emma-Jane got another
statutory notice, then another and another, allowing the builder to do
expensive stonework. Scaffolding went back up, sandstone stripped out
from the walls of their building started appearing in the skip
Emma-Jane "One of my neighbours experienced in stonework looked at
the stone in the skip and it was his view that there was no reason for
that stone to be taken out of the building"
When the scaffolding came down, the building appeared to have been
given a make-over most of which Emma-Jane believes was, simply,
cosmetic. "The last we heard about the total cost of the sandstone,
it was a quarter of a million pounds, I think they've seen this as an
opportunity to do a Rolls Royce job on a building that wasn't necessary,
and we can't afford" Emma-Jane and her neighbours had expected a
bill of around £90,000. Its now around £300,000.
We wanted to know if these bills could be the real cost of what was
needed to be done. Was it possible that the owners simply didn't want to
pay? So, we called in a couple of experts to look at Emma-Jane's and
Gordom Murdie has been a quantity surveyor in Edinburgh for 38 years.
He has detailed experience of the statutory notice system and has been
used as an expert witness in court. John Addison is a conservation
engineer brought in to work on high-profile projects across the country,
including Historic Scotland. John on Bruce Thompson's property "My
assessment is that, probably, 95% of the work wasn't necessary" The
contractors say they were instructed to do all this work by the council.
As well as examining Emma-Jane's building we showed them a survey
done 6 years before the first statutory notice. Our experts say it gave
no indication major works would be needed back then. John on Emma-Jane's
property "This doesn't look like £300,000 worth of work" Our
experts have found unnecessary work, overcharging even work that might
make a building worse.
Driving around Edinburgh, I can see how Edinburgh's international
reputation hangs on the quality of its architecture. Perhaps Bruce's and
Emma-Jane's were isolated cases. Well I've come across dozens of people
complaining about stautory notices right across the city, each more
curious than the last.
At Comely Bank Road, thousands of pounds worth of work was to be
carried out under statutory notice, but James McLean, one of the
property owners, challenged it. He said, when he did the council agreed
that some of the work didn't need to be done. In Trafalgar Street in
Leith, Bonita Russell owns a cafe, she's having to close the business
she's run for more than 20 years after the total bill soared to almost
£200,000. Also in Leith on Commercial Street Jeremy Pasco and his
neighbours are expecting a final bill of more than a million pounds.
It was becoming clear that Bruce and Emma-Jane weren't the only ones
unhappy with statutory notices.
I arranged to meet a guy who used to issue statutory notices.
He resigned when he felt his colleague were to keen to hand out statutory notices.
He suspected that, on occasion, builders were leading the job or adding
more work and the officers were signing off the notices.
If council officials were encouraged to hand out statutory notices, it
goes someway to explaining the huge rise we've seen.
Over 5 years, the value of the building work under these powers has
soared from 9 million in 2005 to 30 million in 2010 and some people have
got very rich.
But statutory notices were never meant to be like this. The power was
brought in to protect historic buildings and to protect the people on
the street below. 11 years ago, a waitress, working at Ryan's Bar in
Princes Street, was killed after 2 foot long stones fell from the third
floor of the building.
Ewan Aitken is a counsellor and a former leader of The City of Edinburgh
Council. But for the past 2 years, he's been raising concerns about the
way the power is used. "There are issues about how decision are
nade, about what constitutes the need for a statutory order and how they
seem to expand and expand. All at the cost of the residents who have no
communication and end up paying the bill".
He says he has evidence that builders doing statutory work were lining
their own pockets. He claims that, across the capital, at least 13
addresses were charged for top quality products while the builders
actually used cheap alternatives. Now surely that would be fraud! A
fraud, he says, he has the paperwork to prove. He has passed this
information to the police's specialist fraud unit.
So, we know that builders are being investigated, we know that
homeowners are being ripped-off and we know that costs have escalated. But,
Within the council, we'd heard the relationship between some officers
and builders was far too cosy. There are allegations of trips to
lap-dancing clubs.. This year arond 15 members of the council's property
conservation department have been suspended. The council says these
suspensions are precautionary. We also know the council's hospitality
records up to 2009 have been lost.
To find out more about the relationship between council officials and
builders, possibly even amounting to corruption, I went back to our
informant. He told me the system was wide-open to abuse including
Lothian and Borders Police have now set up a fraud and corruption
investigation. It even involves claims that a surveyor, in the council's
property conservation department, enjoyed holidays paid for by a
building contractor. How the council awards contracts is highly
||Spurs or Halo -
George Turner, Peter Denard, et tal.
Encounter = Neil Wilson