JULIAN SPALDING says he’s only been made a serious fool of once in his life, and that was by the City of Edinburgh Council. It simply never occurred to him that its governance could be deeply corrupt.
I worked in local government for thirty years up until 1999, mostly as a chief officer for the cities of Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow. Of course there was the occasional bad apple, and stretches of incompetence. But my overall experience was that local government in Britain was very tightly and honestly run, led by dedicated people who were acutely aware that they were spending the public purse.
So when Edinburgh Council told us that major repairs had to be carried out on our building, I believed them. How naïve I proved to be!
The Statutory Notice system, unique to Edinburgh, used to be an excellent way of dealing with essential repairs to properties, particularly tenements with multiple owners.
In 2001 my wife commissioned a survey of our building, which identified relatively minor works that were needed to the rear elevation and interior common stair. In 2002 the Council issued a Statutory Notice to deal with these.
For six years, very little happened.
Then in 2008 the Council informed us that this modest repair had become a major project involving wholesale replacement of the stonework on the façade. They had accepted a tender – as we found out much later, from a firm that was not an approved contractor – for £270,239.
A bill originally estimated at a couple of thousand per owner had suddenly been inflated to over thirty thousand pounds each.
But still I didn’t smell a rat. I thought, if it had to be done, it had to be done. The Council couldn’t be lying to us.
£5.5 MILLION DEBT WRITE-OFF.
The job was completed in 2009, but none of the owners was billed. Then the news began to leak out that a major fiddle had been going on, with council officers getting backhanders for commissioning repairs, particularly to stonework, that were quite unnecessary.
Edinburgh Council admitted as much by closing the Statutory Repairs department down, though they never explained what had actually been going on. In May 2014, they publicly wrote off £5.5m debt arising from these issues.
Then in February this year, we received a letter from Andrew Field, a Senior Operations Manager in Property Conservation, saying that each owner on our stair would now be charged £15,547.54.
His letter was exquisitely mealy-mouthed. ‘We sincerely apologise,’ he wrote, ‘for the delay in getting to this stage [14 years after my wife had initiated the process!] but, following a number of questions [!] raised about the Statutory Repairs service, it was important that we introduce a revised and more robust quality assurance and billing process.’
The Council had admitted, implicitly, that something had gone seriously wrong with our contract by halving the original bill, but they didn’t in any way explain how or why they had come to this seemingly arbitrary figure.
Worse, it was not at all clear what we were now being charged for, let alone whether or not the work was necessary. So we asked them for a more detailed breakdown, seeing no reason why we should believe them a second time.
A clerk in ‘Customer Enquiries’ then sent us what he called a summary of the assessment of our project that had been made by Deloitte LLP, a company that the Council had appointed (at an estimated cost of £7m) to evaluate all the outstanding Statutory Repair bills. Our share of the cost of this assessment, he was delighted to assure us, would not be charged to us!
He then informed us that, if we remained dissatisfied, we could refer the matter to the ‘Investigation Stage’, when our complaint would be dealt with by ‘a senior officer in the Council’.
We tried to make sense of the few documents he’d sent us, including a single page of the Deloitte report, but found them incomprehensible, and so requested to go to the ‘Investigation Stage’.
In response, we received an email from another stooge in ‘Customer Enquiries’ (not a department that seems short of staff!) telling us that the Council ‘does not deem the charge to be in dispute, as the account has been fully analysed and verified by our independent advisor, Deloitte’, and that therefore ‘the invoice will not be put on hold’. In short, we have to pay up now or be taken to court.
So much for the ‘Investigation Stage’ and ‘more robust quality assurance and billing process’! This is the Council acting as a thug.
It was obvious even from the patchy paperwork we’d been sent that Deloitte’s enquiry wasn’t in any way independent or robust. The Council had paid them millions to paper over a mess.
The only thing worse than government corruption is a government covering it up.
There might, however, be a chance that we can climb out of the hellhole the Council has dug us into. We’ve asked Quantus QS to act for us, a firm led by Gordon Murdie, the quantity surveyor who did so much to raise public awareness the Statutory Notice scandal in 2011.
We went to see him in his modest office, and I immediately felt at home. Here was the type of man I’d so enjoyed working with for thirty years in local government – dedicated and full of integrity, with knowledge of the ways of the world, leavened by a wry, earthy wit, working not for his own self-interest but for the common good.
He was already dealing with over two hundred cases of unjustified billing, and the human stories he told us were horrendous. One young couple wanted to start a family but couldn’t sell their one-bedroom flat because of the colossal repairs bill that was pending.
An elderly lady had been so scared of the Council’s threats that she’d sold her home to pay it, totally unnecessarily. What a way for a city to treat its citizens!
Government corruption is one of the worst problems the world faces today – it prevents resources getting to where they’re desperately needed. Integrity begins at home. If the capital city of a wealthy, stable country like Scotland can’t be a beacon of good government, what hope is there for humanity?
That’s why I’ve written to Sue Bruce, the Chief Executive of the City of Edinburgh Council, enclosing this article, asking her to be transparent about what happened in this corruption scandal and to assure us that no Edinburgh citizen will be unjustly charged for work that was improperly done on their property, and, most importantly, to reimburse all those who have already been wrongfully charged.
I look forward to her reply, which will be shared, in the spirit of transparent government, with the readers of ScotBuzz.
Meanwhile, we’re refusing to pay this bill until the Council proves that every penny we are being charged was justifiably spent.
I will not be made a fool of twice.