Council calls in auditors and suspends half its property department as BBC alleges serious wrongdoing

BBC Scotland claims to have uncovered evidence of possible fraud and serious wrongdoing in building works overseen by Edinburgh Council.

The broadcaster said it had heard claims of bribes being offered by contractors, overcharging, and unnecessary and poor quality work.

The council has refused to comment on the allegations until a police inquiry has been concluded.

The fraud unit at Lothian and Borders Police is investigating Edinburgh council’s property conservation department, which deals with statutory notices.

These notices are unique to Edinburgh, and allow the council to order repairs to private homes. Around 3,000 are issued per year.

The system means the council can intervene to organise repair work for private properties when the owners cannot reach agreement.

Council surveyors arrange the work through approved contractors and subsequently bill the properties’ owners. Fifteen percent of the final bill goes to the local authority.

A programme called Scotland’s Property Scandal, aired on BBC1 Scotland last night (Tuesday 20 September), revealed that almost half the council’s property department – about 15 officials – have been suspended over the past year in a move described as “precautionary”.  

The council has also called in the auditors Deloitte to carry out an investigation.

The programme claims that the value of statutory notices issued by council surveyors has increased dramatically in recent years, from £9.2m in 2005 to more than £30m in 2010.

It says the relationships between contractors and council officials have become extremely close, and that the police have been passed evidence claiming to show that a council officer went on holidays paid for by a contractor.

Multiple sources including residents and businesses in Edinburgh told the BBC they had been hit by rising costs when further repairs were carried out on their properties without their say-so, leaving them with six-figure bills.

Councillor Ewan Aitken, former leader of Edinburgh City Council, told the BBC he is contacted at least once a day by constituents worried about statutory notices.

He said he is concerned that council officers may have abused their position: “I have seen what appear to be strange decisions, unexplained decisions about who gets work, and that worries me deeply. And I’ve been asking questions, public questions, about that, and not got answers.

“I think we need to review every case, at least back to 2005, to find out how was the notice was put in place.”

Mark Turley, director of Services for communities at Edinburgh City Council, said: “The fact that we commissioned Deloitte to carry out a very thorough investigation is a sign of how seriously we take the complaints and concerns that have been raised and our commitment to addressing them.

“We fully recognise that the public should know the results of these investigations and they will be reported to a meeting of the council once we are in a position to do this.”