Tenement Living

Life in a tenement appeals to many, offering a sense of security and social networking, which, it could be argued, are not as readily available in single city dwellings or property outwith the city.

In an exchange with the Editor of the Spectator over press regulation towards the end of last year, John Cleese asked on Twitter why it was that ‘we let half-educated tenement Scots run our English press’.

Discussion ensued amongst his fellow tweeters at the time about the understanding of tenement living in Scotland today, and what it might mean to be a ‘tenement Scot’.

It was assumed that the tenements to which he was referring were the high density housing blocks in Scottish cities of the past. These were built to house disadvantaged families and tended to have poor maintenance and repair programmes, which led in some instances to slum conditions and social deprivation.

However, whilst it could be argued that some current social housing could still be described as substandard, there is no doubt that the status of the tenement block in Scottish cities today enjoys an enviable reputation, and offers, in many cases, some fine living and grand designs.

It is understood that around 69% of households in Glasgow now live in purpose built flats or tenements, with 60% in the City of Edinburgh and 48% and 47% respectively in Aberdeen and Dundee.

The history of the tenement, of course, goes back to Roman days and to the ‘insula’, which was a block of separate dwelling houses in a single structure in Rome and Ostia, examples of which can still be seen today.

The insulae were mainly tenements providing social housing for the working class as distinct from the upper class houses (domus), which were individual city dwelling houses. 

However, there is no doubt that Scotland’s cities, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, are now defined by their handsome Georgian and Victorian tenements and the owners or tenants who stay in them.

Life in a tenement appeals to many, offering a sense of security and social networking, which, it could be argued, are not as readily available in single city dwellings or property outwith the city.

However, life in tenement blocks is not always plain sailing, particularly when it comes to repairs and maintenance of shared parts and areas, where issues can arise.

Many tenements appoint managing agents or factoring firms, more common in Glasgow and in new build blocks, who will attend to such matters; however, many of the older tenements in Edinburgh still manage repairs and maintenance without the assistance of such firms.

When repairs and maintenance are required to shared parts and areas of the block, the first port of call is to check the title deeds to the property. The solicitor who acted in the purchase, or the lender who financed it, may hold these, but, in any event, it is most likely that the purchase solicitor will have prepared a report on the title and a summary of the shared parts and shared obligations at the time of the transaction and will be able to assist.

It is likely that the title deeds to the property will detail the common parts (shared areas), together with who is responsible for these, and how any costs for repair and maintenance should be divided.

However, occasionally, if the tenement block is particularly old and the title deeds relating to the tenement block are correspondingly old, the title deeds may not provide all the answers required and may be silent on certain parts.

For years, when titles were silent on such matters, the owners had to rely on common law principles, which required unanimity for any maintenance and repair.

However, in 2004, legislation came into force, in the form of the Tenement (Scotland) Act 2004, which clarified who owned what in a tenement block and laid down the rules and regulations required, through a Tenement Management Scheme, to allow any necessary communal work to be carried out on a majority vote.

The objectives behind the legislation were principally to end disagreement amongst neighbours over communal repairs and to allow necessary work to go ahead with the consent of the majority rather than by a unanimous vote.

There is little doubt that many tenement properties, over the years, fell into a state of neglect and disrepair due to the old system of maintenance and repairs; however, since the introduction of legislation to address these issues, there has been a general improvement in the condition and quality of our tenement stock. So much so, in fact, that it could even be argued that there might now be a sense of pride, amongst flat owners and occupiers, in being called a ‘tenement Scot’.

Dianne Paterson is a partner in Russel + Aitken Edinburgh LLP

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