Getting to the bottom of the property repair scandal

Melanie Main finds unexpected depths and resonance in audit.

Being a member of Audit Committee wasn’t high on my agenda when I became a councillor, but its monthly meetings are something I now look forward to and rather relish. Now renamed to “Governance, Risk and Best Value Committee” – not even the acronym “GRBV” is much less of a mouthful – it is convened by a member of the opposition and has the task of scrutinising the work of the Council.

And what better place ‘to make a difference’ as Greens candidates pledged a year ago – making in-roads to ensuring our Council listens to residents and fighting for ‘services not sticking plasters’.

_Sometimes GRVB throws up less than glamorous challenges – last week, for instance, I finally got agreement that when the council reports on capital projects the cost of borrowing (that is, the interest payments) will be included in the financial reporting for the length of the project. For the first time we’ll know the full cost of a capital project.

That might seem common sense but, because the law requires interest to be reported by Scotland’s Councils in their annual reports as an annual revenue cost, Edinburgh Council has not included the cost of borrowing money for an individual project in the project management accounts reported to councillors.  For Council Departments it has been a bit like buying a house and not having to pay the interest on the mortgage – someone else somewhere just takes care of it. I wish!

But GRBV can also touch on the highest profile issues.  The same GRBV meeting also agreed which areas to audit and scrutinise over the next year and councillors were unanimous in agreeing that the city’s property repair scandal is definitely on the list.  Alongside the trams debacle, the collapse in the city’s once pioneering system for dealing with private sector common repairs has been a stain on the reputation of the council and needs every bit of critical scrutiny.

But when? With hundreds of home-owners still in dispute about the amount they should pay the council for repairs they regard as excessive or shoddy, there are those who will advise that until the last appeal case against the Council is settled, councillors should not ask for this can of worms to be opened.

But it would not be right to expect the public to wait many years until every appeal is concluded simply because we may prejudice an one appeal, by admitting what we already know – that there were serious mistakes made and innocent members of the public have suffered.

One of the reasons for hesitation up until now has been potential criminal proceedings against staff or building contractors.  We are now getting to the end of that phase, so, when the Procurator Fiscal tells Edinburgh Council it is free to do so, councillors must start, at the earliest opportunity, an inquiry – internal audit and scrutiny – so that the public knows what happened, so lessons that have been learned are seen to be learnt and most importantly so we all have the confidence that Edinburgh will not let this happen ever again.

In this way, and others like it, the apparently unglamorous GRVB has the potential to touch very directly on the concerns that affect the everyday lives of people in Edinburgh.  I am committed to making sure it does just that.