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Looking after our tenements – is it time for a Common Quality Standard for all Scottish housing?

Blog by David Stewart, SFHA Policy Lead

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The issue of repairs and quality standards in housing has come up a lot recently. Whether it’s social landlords highlighting the difficulty of meeting energy efficiency standards in tenements or heritage charities concerned about preserving our built environment, there’s no doubt that it’s a matter of real concern.

At the most basic level, owners might struggle to get agreement and payment for roof repairs. Some social landlords are selectively selling flats where they are the minority owner in a stair and struggle to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard (SHQS), as they can’t get consent to improvements from other owners.

I recently attended a meeting, chaired by Euan Leitch, Director of the Built Environment Forum for Scotland (BEFS), that brought together organisations with an interest in this growing problem. There was wide agreement on the serious extent of the problem, and the fact that it is growing, however, a range of potential solutions was offered.

RICS has developed proposals for a five yearly Tenement Health Check. RICS notes that “poor maintenance of buildings in common ownership is prevalent throughout Scotland” and call for government action to prevent further decline and deterioration. The scale of the problem is potentially huge – just under a quarter of our homes are tenement flats, with 218,000 pre-1919 stone tenements.

The proposed five yearly survey would focus on the condition of common parts and identify defects – this would provide a basis for identifying and agreeing common repairs and would, crucially, allow prospective purchasers to be aware of outstanding repairs that they would have to fund.

The authors of Under One Roof, the New Tenement Handbook, propose an additional measure – a requirement for tenement owners to pay into a sinking fund for major repairs –  just as housing associations make provisions for future major repairs. They cite a new law introduced in Ireland as a potential model for Scotland.  

My own preference would be for the Scottish Government to introduce a Common Housing Quality Standard (CHQS), similar to the SHQS, that covers all tenures. Some initial work was undertaken on a possible standard a couple of years ago, but there continues to be a sense that governments are nervous about regulating the owner occupied sector.

I strongly believe that the time is now right to develop a common standard. It would provide a tool to deal with some significant issues:

  • increasing energy efficiency to tackle fuel poverty and meet our ambitious climate change targets
  • maintaining the homes that many of us live in and preventing disrepair
  • protecting owners’ assets
  • protecting our built heritage
  • promoting safe, secure buildings free from damp
  • creating jobs and investment   

So what next? RICS is actively promoting its proposals to politicians and will hold a parliamentary event later this year. A Scottish Government consultation on fire safety in flats, following the dreadful Grenfell tragedy, is expected in September. This may provide a focus for wider issues of safety and disrepair. 

Clearly, this isn’t an issue that is about to go away. Housing associations were at the forefront of work to rehabilitate and improve our tenements in the 70s and 80s, let’s not see that great work go to waste.