Heather Brannan-McVey knows the history of this street.  She has been to Millcroft Road before. But, standing amid fly-tipped furniture, she is still horrified by what she sees.

“I’m quite disgusted that it’s been allowed to get to this stage,” says the Labour councillor. She is convener of housing for North Lanarkshire Council and its her job to fix the problem, though it is not one of her making.

The complex was built by the old Cumbernauld Corporation as affordable but nice “bought” houses. When the new town authority was wound up, the buildings were left without a factor or manager.

Read more: Cumbernauld's Millcroft Road: How dreams turned into a buy-to-let slum

They fell in to increasing disrepair. Prices crashed. Occupiers sold up and by-to-let landlords bought in. The new absentee landlords, raking in rents on a low investment, did not want to pay for common repairs either. And conditions deteriorated further.

“I was talking to a local member the other day who was saying there used to be a phrase in Cumbernauld that ‘you could buy the whole of Millcroft Road on your credit card’,” explains Ms Bannan-McVey. “The value of the properties had plummeted. And so, literally people were doing that, buying houses on their credit card.”

Read More: Cumbernauld's Millcroft Road - what's next for crumbling slums?

The councillor has sympathy for some of the owners who bit off more than they could afford, including what she calls “serendipitous landlords” who spotted what they thought was a market opportunity. 

The flats were cheap because they needed investors. But investors did not invest. 

“Some of these landlords ended up perhaps financially stretched themselves, found themselves in a less than ideal situation where they don't have the capital to invest in their portfolio,” she says. “Everybody thinks being hard of cash is going to be a short term thing  but it is not.”

Her tone changes, an edge of anger cuts in to her voice as she talks about some of the big owners. “There is a series of  landlords here who have been entirely absent, who have walked away and left people living in these circumstances,” she says.

“These are not all people who thought you were going to be mortgage free eventually, who maybe did not keep a bit of a nest egg  to invest in renewal. People deserve better than to live under these standards.”

Some owners have clearly never even visited Cumbernauld, never mind Millcroft Road. That is because properties in the development are routinely sold at auction to buy-to-let speculators.  

The Herald: Cumbernauld's Millcroft Road - what's the next step

There were two for sale late last month - albeit with small print in the particulars stressing that the entire structure is under threat of compulsory purchase.

North Lanarkshire Council, in its formal Statement of Reasons for its CPO, stresses most properties are owned by people who do not live in them. The authority makes clear it believes this model of ownership has contributed to the decline of the development.

“The cumulative degradation of the blocks is further intensified due to the majority of the owners being private landlords who are not local to the area or available first hand to witness the continued plight of those at Millcroft Road,” the official document reads.

“As of October 2021, 102 landlords were registered, 25% of those private limited companies rather than individuals,” it added. 

Nearly three-quarters of landlords were not from the Clyde Valley; nearly two-fifths were not even from Scotland.

“The multitude of interests reaching outwith the locality makes agreement of approach to upgrade work extremely problematic.”

A list of titles obtained by The Herald shows there is a flat in Millcroft Road held in the name of a shell corporation in the British Virgin Islands, a jurisdiction more popularly associated with opaquely owned Highland shooting estates. There are named owners in Tehran, Iran, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Some landlords are not just absentee, they are offshore.

The Herald: Millcroft Road in CumbernauldMillcroft Road in Cumbernauld (Image: Gordon Terris)

Ms Brannan-McVey stresses properties were being advertised for let in London, for £600 a month. Students are being targeted, migrants, people who do not know they area and are confused by the ‘G’ postcode, she argues.

Failure by owner-occupiers and buy-to-let landlords to agree on common factoring has caused all sorts of headaches. 

Take plumbing. Common drains are not maintained. One owner-occupier, a pensioner, has had to spent thousands on contractors unblocking a single pipe he shares with an entire block.  Why? Because raw sewage kept backflowing through his toilet in to his bright, large bathroom.

There have been efforts over the years to force an agreement on factoring, not least after the council served maintenance orders on owners in 2011.  Some proprietors  were prepared to pay. Others were not. 

A year later North Lanarkshire stepped in to carry out essential repairs on two of the three blocks, D and E, itself. It fixed wiring, lighting, glazing, the roof of the structures to try and make them safe. The bill was £3800 for every property - though owners were offered a £500 grant. Many proprietors simply did not pay up. The council is owed nearly £125,000. 

So the public sectors is effectively subsidising the properties of buy-to-let landlords who are providing accommodation that is below tolerable standard. This does not just happen in Cumbernauld. Council officials across Scotland mutter at the hidden costs they bear shoring up unfactored multi-flat buildings with buy-to-let or right-to-buy owners.

Read More: Cumbernauld college students back lecturers as action could deny Uni places

Neil Watts is a housing official at North Lanarkshire and is right across the detail of Millcroft Road. He cites peculiarities in the deeds for blocks C, D and E. The entire development was expected to have a single factor. And that proved impossible. 

“The factoring is not broken up by stair,” the official explains. “Our maintenance efforts were designed to bring the state of repair to a standard where a factor might be appointed. But and that has been unsuccessful, just through a collective lack of lack of agreement. This is a problem you probably have across Scotland.”

The Herald:

Some residents, tenants and owner-occupiers, have tried to make Millcroft Road better. In one of the courtyards one owner - who did not want his name in the paper - had set out little chairs and made himself and his wife a garden. He no longer uses the space: it is overhung with loose tiles and masonry. 

The man has been in the complex longer than most, for  30 years off and on, and has seen its decline first-hand. His lungs shot after six bouts of Covid (he has collected all the disease’s varieties, he jokes), he is living in damp. For this he blames faulty planning and construction. He points his walking stick to stairways that go nowhere, to crumbling concrete.

He knows he will never own his own home again, that nobody will ever give him a mortgage, and that his best hope is a council house. “We gave up,” he sighs describing exhaustion over the recent twists and turns over the future of the complex. “It was all ‘it’s happening’ then it was ‘it’s not happening’ and now ‘it’s happening’ again.”

The man is right: the road to the CPO has been long. It - and plans for replacement flats - were first mooted back in 2017. Then a social housing partner to replace the buildings dropped out.

In our final part on Monday - What's next for Cumbernauld's crumbling Millcroft Road?