EDINBURGH’S CORRUPTION COVER-UP: 11 COMMENTS

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.’

 

INCOMPREHENSIBLE DOCUMENT

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.

 

PATCHY PAPERWORK

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Feedback

  Comments: 11

  1. Kim and Fraser Proven


    We are absolutely delighted to read this frank summary of what has been going on in Edinburgh. You represent the feelings of many whether they have paid or not. This is corporate bullying. There have been no apologies or admissions of guilt from Edinburgh City Council or from any contractors other than one whistle blower quoted anonymously in the newspapers. The replies that we have received to our letters skirt or ignore the difficult questions and the people writing them are unlikely to have first hand knowledge of what went on. What about the accounts department and auditors? Were they really so incompetent that they mislaid millions of pounds of invoices that should have been sent out to recover monies paid to contractors (between 2004 and 2013 in our case) or do they feel obliged to keep quiet. Have they all been dismissed?
    A leak in the roof of our building quoted at a few hundred pounds per owner ended up as a full scale roof repair job including the “non essential” painting of the building where the price of paint charged would be expensive today. The final invoice was over 7 times the initial quote.
    We understand that Dame Sue Bruce is due to retire. We sincerely hope that she will acknowledge the corruption and put a stop to the humiliation and threats of further charges to hundreds of law abiding owners, Then she can go out with her head held a little higher.


  2. Very well written piece. You are not the only one in this sort of position. Keep fighting. we will get justice

  3. Simon Williams


    How many of us have been through this nonsense with City of Edinburgh Council over the past 10-15 years? After years of scaffolding, burgeoning costs, substandard work, lost paperwork, unsigned accounts … how many of us are being suddenly bullied into paying still unsubstantiated invoices?

    Representing our tenement of 12 flats in central Edinburgh, I wrote to CEC three weeks ago asking for the invoices to be put on hold whilst we requested Freedom of Information on our Deloitte report. I was told that the matter was closed, the invoices due, there was nothing more to discuss.

    This was despite the Council’s Corporate Debt Policy clearly indicating that invoices should be put on hold whilst in dispute. My complaint, has now been escalated to ‘Complaint Stage 2’, apparently ‘due to the complexity of the issues’. Yet somewhat confusingly, even though it is a complaint, it is still not deemed a dispute, and therefore the ‘debt’ is still recoverable and will not be put on hold whilst our concerns are addressed.

    And this is despite an unfinished snagging list, owners damage claims not being addressed, no evidence of the requirement of works in the first place, or signed final accounts from the none framework (TFA) contractors (one of which was sacked, the other went into liquidation). In fact the initial non framework contractor was paid a whopping £128,000 for a job it only half finished, which then had to be completely made good by another contractor for less than half the price. My questions as to why the initial contractor was paid at all, fell on deaf ears. Not one answer has been forthcoming.

    CEC STONEWALLS COMPLAINANTS

    And so, although the working assumptions for Deloitte are deeply flawed, no further discussion with residents is being entered into. This is to some degree understandable. Dame Bruce would hardly want to admit that an expenditure of over £7 Million on the ‘independent’ Deloitte report was deeply flawed, not to mention the costs for Maclay Murray & Spens.

    I have decided that I have had enough.

    http://WWW.REEKIELEAKS.ORG.UK

    I am inviting you to send me your Statutory Notice stories to put up on the site, to show the scale of the unresolved problem.

    Other areas within the website will include a collation of the phenomenal tide of news items over the past five years.

    Another section will show how easy it is to make Freedom of Information requests. How to write to an MSP online, how to complain to the Information Commissioner and The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

    Reekieleaks will also be writing to the Procurator Fiscal to ask why the investigation into corruption at CEC was brought to so sudden a close.

    I fervently hope, that by the careful picking apart of documentation that is either in the public domain, can be demanded via FOI requests, elicited by forcing responses by letter, or is leaked … that we can end this systemic indifference to institutional corruption and malpractice.

    FORTY-EIGHT OUT OF FIFTY-EIGHT OF YOUR ELECTED COUNCILLORS CHOSE NOT TO REPLY

    To start this process off, I sent a polite one-page letter to 58 Councillors three weeks ago. Only 10 answered. Only 4 or so seemed in any way interested. A staggering 48 Councillors did not see fit to answer the one question I had posed as a matter of urgency for those Edinburgh Residents being landed with invoices that were at least to them still in dispute.

    You will be able to see every single response or non-response on the website, Councillor by Councillor, searchable by ward, name or party.

    Is this really the standard of public servant that we deserve? Are we really happy to put up with this level of indifference and disrespect.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Julian Spalding’s article in Scotbuzz. This is so utterly corrosive to the democratic process, that it deserves no place in a proud and ingenious nation. So, enough is surely enough … it really is up to the residents of Edinburgh to stand together to say ‘no more’.

    We want transparency, honesty and accountability.

    If you have read this letter and Julian’s article, and have similar sentiments, then please email me at sjw@reekieleaks.org.uk with ‘your statutory notice story’. Reekieleaks will do its utmost to bring this scandal to the top of the political agenda.

    Reekieleaks (www.reekieleaks.org.uk) will be live on Saturday 18th April.

    Simon Williams

  4. Ailsa Carlisle


    Brilliantly written article by Julian Spalding. I see it has already appeared on the “City of Edinburgh Council Statutory Notice Scam” Facebook page!

  5. Chris Malcolm


    In the 1970s the roof of my Edinburgh block of flats was leaking badly. One owner refused to cooperate with organising and paying for the repairs so we let the council do it. I kept an eye on the men working on the roof. I became suspicious at how seldom they were up there, they seemed to be different men each time, and I seemed to catch them sitting around in work breaks oddly often.

    I went to the Planning Office to find out the standards to which the work must be done so I could check it. They told me that no published standard existed, it was all just well known good practice in the trade, nothing written down I could check against. I found that hard to believe so I changed into working dungarees with a ruler and screwdriver in the chest pocket and went back to the Planning Office. This time I told them I was repairing a roof, but had only just moved to Edinburgh and didn’t know the standards. They showed me a thick heavy A4 book of highly detailed standards. I was delighted to find that it was free, no cost, it was mine to take away!

    After reading through it thoroughly I went up to inspect the roof. About half the easily measurable work was obviously seriously substandard. I reported this to the council. They sent an inspector. We inspected the roof together. He explained that I was being a bit too literal in some cases, but in general the work was definitely unacceptable and he’d have a word with the contractors.

    When the bill came I inspected the roof again. It was definitely still unacceptable in the terms agreed by the council’s own inspector. So I refused to pay on those grounds. I received legal threats by letter and then by visits from debt reclaiming thugs. I was looking forward to my appearance in court when a windy night blew some of the roof repairs into the street.

    The council dropped their legal action and sent men back on the roof. We went through the same entire process once again, right up to the wind helpfully blowing some more of the roof repairs into the street again before the court action. The council dropped the action against me again, and this time never came back to ask me for any money. I was disappointed. I thought the court case was going to be really good fun.

    This was in the 1970s. If you talked to local architects and roofers in a knowledgeable fashion, as I was able to do having digested the roofing standards manual, it wasn’t difficult to find plenty of anecdotal support for the idea that there was a long standing well established swindle going on between the council and certain building contractors.


  6. An ex-colleague of mine was suspicious of her building repairs bills but felt that she couldn’t raise it with the Council as she was in social housing and was applying for a move to Quartermile and felt that her move would be jeopardised. That’s what corruption breeds – fear of raising possible wrong-doing lest raising it harm the raiser. Tyranny.

  7. Paul Johnston


    Simon, I tried to follow the Reekie Leaks link but it askes for a password.


  8. Really good article.
    I had to pay my bill in order to sell my flat. I still don’t understand all the paperwork I was sent. It still frustrates me to think of all those years of stress, worry and never ending phone calls to Edinburgh City Council.


  9. Statuary notice: Being New Town, we do have a couple of Elgin Marbles on the back green. And, yes, we are planning to give them back.


  10. You are not alone Jullian. In our case we were forced to pay our inflated bill in 2011 because we had sold the property and the missives required it. I have disputed it ever since but doing so has been incredibly time consuming, stressful and expensive. CEC have only belatedly conceded that they overcharged us by several thousand pounds but they will only give me the money back if I accept it as full and final settlement without interest. Gordon Murdie estimates that we have been overcharged by at least double what CEC are prepared to concede but CEC wont entertain his view and tell me that their offer to me has lapsed. They prefer to stand behind the independent and robust assessment from Deloitte which is neither independent (they are paid £6,500 + VAT by CEC per case) or robust (read the assumptions that CEC have told them to adopt). As well as a facebook page there is facebook group you can join ‘Edinburgh Residents for Statutory Notice Reform’. It has over 500 members and is dedicated to helping people get justice however long it takes. You are fortunate in some ways in that you haven’t given them any money as yet but you will be disadvantaged if you ever try to sell your property. Stand firm Jullian. Their ‘independent and robust’ assessment wont stand much scrutiny.


  11. We had the same problem when I lived in the New Town. The original price for the roof and chimney stack job rocketed…”Out of nowhere the contractors approved by the city said,” We have found more work that needs doing that we hadn’t noticed before”. I think the bill tripled overnight. This situation arose because one person out of 8 refused to get involved with a minor repair and we had to call in the City…before this we had had a quote from a small independent man for a very modest fee… it would have cost hundreds each…not thousands as it ended up. We could not go ahead with this man as he was not part of the councils ‘approved’ list ( of rip off merchants!!)

    As has been mentioned by many others , a bill that was going to be fairly modest became a bill of thousands. When I sold my flat a couple of years later the issue had still not been resolved and no bill had appeared from the council,as it was now being investigated. When I sold I had to leave money in the buyers lawyers hands for the outstanding bill, based on the latest estimate. It finally arrived and was paid ..no details or breakdown of works done.

    We were all very gullible and believed that there must be more work needed!! We trusted these professionals who were ‘council approved’. These people were able to give a backhander to the council and basically charge whatever they felt like. How many people are on their roof on a regular basis to know what shape it’s in!! Easy prey…easy pickings. Theft!

Letters to the Editor