ALMOST £20,000 of taxpayers’ money will have to be spent on a landmark city church because its owner cannot afford to repair it.
The city council has been forced to carry out urgent work to Lauriston Church after it emerged a group called the Arab Social League of Edinburgh - which has owned the Victorian building for 20 years - does not have enough cash to carry out the work itself.
The league - a society representing about 100 locally based families from 22 countries, such as Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - bought the premises in 1982 and had intended to turn it into a youth centre. But a lack of cash has seen the 143-year-old building fall into disuse since then and it is suffering the effects of vandalism, litter and an influx of squatters.
A suspicious fire there last year caused major structural damage.
Repeated letters by council officials warning the league to clean up the site have been returned unopened after leading members of the organisation could not be contacted.
The situation is so bad that architecture watchdog the Scottish Civic Trust has added the church to its "buildings at risk" register.
Now council officials have confirmed they have been forced to take matters into their own hands and pick up the £18,000 tab for vital repairs after unsuccessfully ordering the league to sort out the problems in 1998 and again last year.
The money will go towards securing the church from intruders, the removal of pigeon waste and cleaning of guttering.
A council spokeswoman said the authority will attempt to recover the cost from the league.
A spokesman for the Arab Social League admitted the church was in a "bad condition" and that the group was still attempting to raise the cash to fix it.
However, a city heritage watchdog has said the league should take proper responsibility or sell it to someone who could.
Martin Hulse, director of the Cockburn Association, said the buck stopped with the owner.
He said: "Its future is uncertain, with its owners seemingly unwilling to take responsibility for it. It has suffered abuse from squatters and has been vandalised, with the latest problem being arson. They should either put it up for sale or do the repairs."
Iain Whyte, Tory group leader, also called for the owner to take responsibility, and for the council to consider taking legal action if it doesn’t. Jane Nelson, Scottish Civic Trust buildings-at-risk officer, said: "This is a major problem. This church is in a fairly poor condition."
Abdul Algader, Arab Social League of Edinburgh spokesman, said it could not afford to repair the church.
"We are a charity," he said. "We have not got the money. We are not in a position to pay."
He said the league was trying to raise money for the repairs, but added: "What the council is spending is nothing. It is for security, that is all."
He accepted the church was in poor condition and said that the league was in talks with the council about repairs to the building. "It is a nice building. We have not given up yet," he said.
Mr Algader said the council had not been able to track the league down because key members had left the city.
The old kirk was one of four Edinburgh buildings highlighted by the Scottish Civic Trust last month.
The former Buccleuch Parish School, the former Blackfriars Church and the Morris & Steedman Building at Princess Margaret Rose Hospital were also among 19 other buildings listed on the trust’s register.
Source: Sam Halstead, Evening News, 4th May, 2002