A prominent member of the House of Lords is in dispute with his Galloway tenants after water supplies to their homes repeatedly failed Scottish Water quality standards.
Richard Hubert Gordon Gilbey, the 12th Baron Vaux of Harrowden, is a hereditary peer who chairs the Lords’ finance committee and rents out homes at Rusko Estate, near Gatehouse of Fleet.
Two of his tenants have complained about water contamination. Gilbey told The Ferret the complaints stem from one tenant and his friend.
He stressed he was “working hard to resolve” the issues and had always provided bottled water.
But tenants’ union Living Rent called for stronger regulation to ensure action is taken when properties do not meet official standards.
The vast majority of Scottish homes are connected to a public water supply, managed by Scottish Water.
But Rusko Estate tenants are among about three per cent of Scotland’s population that receive drinking water from private supplies, which are more prone to risk.
A 2020 study from the James Hutton Institute found Scottish private supplies to be at risk of running dry due to climate change.
Private supplies in the country are regulated by local authorities and overseen by the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland (DWQR), which has associated some with “outbreaks of disease”.
Tests taken between February 2020 and January 2022 show that water supplies at some of Gilbey’s rental properties were contaminated with harmful bacteria like E. coli.
Heavy metals – which can lead to serious health issues – exceeded legal limits by as much as 32 times.
Gilbey said that all his water treatment systems have been upgraded in the last year. “We are taking the problems extremely seriously,” he added.
Other housing issues have also been found at his Rusko estate.
A 2020 inspection by Dumfries and Galloway Council found that the home Gilbey let to a tenant breached housing regulations on multiple accounts. It failed six of nine repair standards, had wood rot, mouldy walls, a shower without hot water, and a sealed chimney risking “carbon monoxide build-up”.
Gilbey said any potential safety issues “were remedied immediately” while others would be resolved by renovating the property as part of a plan approved by landlord registration.
He said he gave his tenant notice to quit in February 2020 in order to renovate his home – before any contamination issues emerged.
The work “cannot reasonably or safely be done with a tenant living in the house,” he argued.
However the tenant is fighting the notice at a housing tribunal.
Gilbey – who said he acquired the estate in 2016 – claimed the state of the properties pre-dated his ownership, adding there was a “substantial” ongoing modernisation programme, with over £500,000 spent on refurbishing properties.
Water tests showed contamination
Scottish Water, which is not responsible for private supplies, found that the water supplying the tenant’s cottage was contaminated, following a test in February 2020.
The test results were shared with the local health board and the council’s environmental health department after it became clear the water supply was private.
The council said there was “an ongoing issue between an individual tenant and their landlord”, but declined to comment further.
Scottish Water’s tests showed that water at the cottage had iron levels 32 times the legal limit.
Lead levels were eight times higher, aluminium levels were four times higher, and copper levels slightly exceeded the limit.
Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure, abdominal, joint and muscle pain, fatigue and memory loss. High copper levels can cause stomach issues.
Gilbey argued that only tests based on samples provided by environmental health should be treated as “official”. But he said he still took the test “extremely seriously” and “remedial action was taken immediately”.
Gilbey shared with The Ferret a March 2020 test report from Scottish Water based on a sample provided by environmental health which did not find bacteria or excessive heavy metal levels. “We reasonably relied on that official test that the water was compliant,” he said.
But further tests conducted by Scottish Water in July 2020, on a sample provided by the tenant, found E. coli. It also contained more than double the legal manganese and aluminium limits, and quadruple the iron limit.
E. coli can cause severe stomach pain, bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure. High levels of manganese in drinking water can cause neurological issues.
“The results were surprising, given the clean bill of health that D&G Environmental Health had given to the water just four months earlier,” Gilbey told The Ferret. “Nonetheless, we took the results extremely seriously.”
Another test, done in January 2022 based on samples provided by environmental health, found lead levels in the cottage’s water supply were quadruple the legal limit. Copper levels were 40 per cent above the limit.
Gilbey said environmental health advised the problem likely stemmed from the pipe system and it was “extremely unlikely” that lead or copper were in the source water.
Chemicals also exceeded the legal limit at two of the estate’s other cottages. according to 2020 and 2021 tests based on samples provided by environmental health. Gilbey said the contamination was “resolved by connecting it to the new borehole”.
One of the cottages received a new treatment process but again failed a recent water test. Gilbey said he arranged further testing to identify and fix the problem, but would keep providing bottled water until environmental health confirmed the issue was resolved.
Another occupied property on the estate, passed contamination tests in 2020, but failed more recent tests for manganese and bacteria, Gilbey said. Efforts to resolve issues at the cottage were stalled by a tenant who initially “did not allow” access to a water tester, he claimed, but said new equipment would be installed as soon as it arrived.
‘Questions’ for authorities
Professor Andrew Watterson, an expert in public health, toxins and chemicals at Stirling University, said: “The reported problems of these vulnerable estate tenants raises questions about the extent to which there has been effective coordination and appropriate action by Scottish Water, the local council, the health board and others.
“There appear to have been contradictory assessments of risk by different authorities and questions about what if any effective middle and long term remedial action has been taken to remove the identified risks.”
Rob Humphreys of Living Rent said: “Too often, landlords get away with failing to repair their properties to the detriment of tenants’ health. This shows the importance of the Scottish Government properly regulating the sector and ensuring there are clear rules and processes when properties fail to meet the tolerable standard.”
South of Scotland Labour MSP Colin Smyth said: “This is yet another symptom of the fact that too much of our land is in the hands of too few who care little about the local communities.”