Cherishing the city’s oldest buildings

Much more focus is needed on the city’s older buildings, argues Gavin Corbett.

Edinburgh is an old city. Just how old was re-inforced starkly at a recent Economy Committee when the depute mayor of Shenzhen talked about her city, growing out of fields in 1980 to a population of 15 million today. That is a new city!

The age and charm of Edinburgh’s buildings, in their unique setting, is, presumably, one of the reasons why people come here from across the world.

So it is puzzling that, as a city, we find it so hard to maintain and cherish these old buildings. Just recently the Evening News highlighted some repair problems at the centuries-old Inch Community Centre.

That comes hot on the heels of the saga of Duncan Place Resource Centre next to Leith Primary School, a mere youth of a building at 100 years old but so neglected for repair and maintenance that it was forcibly closed over a year ago. While demolition plans have had to be shelved, its refurbishment and re-provisioning for school and community use will now cost more than £4 million.

Then there’s eighteenth century Redhall House, sitting above the Water of Leith at Craiglockhart and sold by the council in 2007. Eight years on it is lying neglected and deteriorating, prey to vandalism, despite a well-supported community petition last year and a slowly-meandering planning application submitted last December. Its eventual use will cost far more than it would have eight years ago.

And it is not simply a public building problem. In the chaos which engulfed the city’s property repair service over the last five years it is easy to forget that the service was first developed to fix an acute failure in the way that private buildings are maintained in the city. That is why, when asked what the future should hold, the public response was that a replacement service – now called the Shared Repairs Service – was still needed.

So what is to be done to ensure that our older buildings get the respect they deserve? The solution of earlier decades – the 1970s and 1980s – of public improvement and repair grants which funded the restoration of many of the 19th century tenements is long gone. Indeed, my friends in the housing association world tell me that the shelf life of these earlier improvements is at an end, adding to the backlog.

But in the absence of public funding, what about equity stored up in private property? Perhaps cheer-led by many TV programmes on home makeovers, homeowner investment is often focused on matters other than roofs, downpipes and drains. The rise in the number of absentee landlords also creates a distance from day-to-day property maintenance.

So the council’s Shared Repair Service is a (necessary) sticking plaster for a much more fundamental overhaul of property law which places far greater emphasis on the need for common property maintenance as indeed is the case in much of the rest of northern Europe.

And as for public buildings, a recent proposal, thankfully rejected by the council, was to privatise management and maintenance. If we want safe, well-run, energy efficient buildings we have to pay for their upkeep and improvement – secure in the knowledge that well-maintained buildings today mean lower bills tomorrow.

This blog was first published by the Edinburgh Evening News