“The Council? I’m just fed up” he says. “Look…” He points at a gaping black hole in the bathroom ceiling. “I’ve been trying to get that fixed for ages. And that.” His pointing finger moves to indicate a patch of dangerous black mould. “I’ve given up trying to get the Council to do something about it. It’s like banging your head off a wall.”
In June 2016 Azad Adam and his wife, who suffers from breathing difficulties, moved into a third-floor flat in May Court, one of Muirhouse’s six surviving high rises. Collectively known as “The Six Blocks” these comprise two 14-storey tower blocks, Fidra and Birnies Courts, and four “open deck access” rectangular blocks, Oxcars, Inchmickery, Gunnet and May Courts. “It looked good when we moved in,” says Mr Azad (43). “The Council had just redecorated it.” But he soon realised that they had just painted over damp patches and removed black mould with bleach. They soon reappeared. “The bathroom always felt damp, and it got worse and worse. There was water coming through the ceiling.” The ceiling was covered with pine cladding. “I removed the cladding,” he says, “and was horrified by what I found beneath. The ceiling was ‘blown’. It was soaking wet and mouldy.” Since then the dampness has spread to bedrooms and all attempts to get it fixed have fallen on deaf ears.
Last September “Six Blocks” tenants formed a campaign group to force the Council to take action and since then the Muirhouse Deserves Better campaign, spearheaded by the Living Rent tenants union, have had a number of successes in forcing the Council to decant tenants from damp and leaking properties and start to make repairs. “After decades of ignoring complaints about endemic dampness problems and blaming it on tenants’ living habits the Council have finally admitted that the four deck access blocks in Muirhouse have a fundamental design flaw. It’s a step forward that they finally recognise major works are needed,” says Living Rent member Mike Cormack.
But Living Rent insists the City of Edinburgh Council needs to do much more to address the serious problems in the Muirhouse high rises. “Since the tenants started organising and protesting the Council have finally started to take action. But much more is needed,” he adds. “It’s a tale of two cities. Edinburgh has some of the most expensive and luxurious homes in Britain – meanwhile many tenants in the Council’s neglected housing stock continue to live in conditions that threaten their health and well-being. Sadly, tenants have lost confidence in the Council,” he adds. “We want a second opinion from independent experts and we are asking that the Council fund the Mackintosh School of Architecture to evaluate the Council’s plans to tackle the endemic problems.”
Dampness isn’t the scheme’s only major problem. The roof of Birnies Court has been leaking for five years. The roof was re-covered in 2017 but the water continues to come through. In adjacent Inchmickery Court, whose roof has leaked for at least 14 years, top-floor tenants have been moved out by the Council under pressure from the campaign. (The Council originally claimed that the dampness and leaks were “a series of unconnected events.”) Lift breakdowns have been plaguing 14-storey Birnies Court and also Inchmickery Court for ages. This particularly hits the elderly, disabled and families with young children. One lift in Birnies was broken down for two months When it was finally “fixed” the lift soon broke down again, trapping a woman inside who had to be rescued by the Fire Brigade. There are problems with pigeon infestation and uncollected rubbish bags being ripped open by gulls. . . and there is asbestos
“When I removed the pine cladding I realised that the ceiling beneath was painted with Artex paint,” says Mr Adams. (Until the mid-1980s, the Artex coating was made with white asbestos to strengthen it. Old Artex manufactured by Artex Ltd. will contain asbestos while Artex coatings applied after 2000 may or may not contain asbestos.) “I eventually managed to get the Council to send someone from their in-house Scientific Services to take a sample to test for asbestos. That was months ago and I’ve heard nothing since. They’re useless.” He is not the only one who is critical of the Council’s Scientific Services. An Oxcars tenant had a floor tiles sample taken. Three months later when he had heard nothing further he phoned Scientific Services only to be told that they had lost the sample. “We can’t find it,” they said. (Another tenant whose letters to Scientific Services were ignored eventually had to complain to Nicola Sturgeon and the Public Services Ombudsman and enrol the services of the Scottish Hazards health and safety organisation before Scientific Services would come out and check the Artexed ceiling in his living room that was in place when he moved into the flat 20 years ago.)
“So, I’ve got black mould and asbestos in the bathroom - and this.” Mr Adam, who has pro-actively engaged with the council and is a member of the local community council, pulls back a canvas sheet on the floor to reveal a loose wooden board which he lifts up. Beneath is a spaghetti junction of live electric cables leading under the bath. “Black mould, water coming in, asbestos, and live electric cables,” says Mr Adam. “This must be the worst bathroom in Scotland.” On the 4 April, at the end of his tether, he wrote to his local Council housing officer.
“I got a phone call saying that someone would come and start work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but they never turned up. . . The council is still completely ignoring folk . . .
It's a complete and utter nightmare, and to be honest it's causing me such a high level of stress that I feel I may have another heart attack, stroke, or nervous breakdown if I continue to live here. To top it all off the water went off yesterday . . . There are other tenants and owners here who feel the same way and their health has also been negatively affected. Shame on Edinburgh Council, it really is disgusting the way they are ignoring people . . . I am seriously considering taking the matter to the Sheriff Court . . .”
“We urge tenants in Muirhouse – and all over the city – to contact Living Rent to join the fight for a safe healthy home,” says Emma Saunders, a member of Living Rent. “Only by tenants getting organised and taking action will things improve.”