ALISTAIR Darling today branded city council plans to borrow £231 million to take the tram route to St Andrew Square as “absolute madness”.
The former Chancellor and Edinburgh South West MP broke his silence on the project to tell the Evening News he could not see how the business case stacked up. He warned against saddling council taxpayers with bills of £15m a year for the next 30 years to pay off the loan for taking the trams just a mile further.
He called for an external assessor to be brought in to advise on the best way forward for the troubled project, and an immediate independent inquiry into what had gone wrong.
Mr Darling said, as transport secretary in the last UK Labour government, he had probably stopped more tram schemes than any other secretary of state. He said: “What happens with tram projects is they make wildly optimistic assumptions and they just come back asking for more and more money. And that’s what’s going to happen with this one.”
He said he had always been a “trams sceptic”.
He said: “They really only work when they are on a densely populated route and the problem with the route now is a lot of it is off-street out to the airport.
“I think it would be absolute madness to extend it beyond Haymarket, having to borrow £230m.”
He voiced concerns about plans for the council-owned bus company to be charged £2.7m a year to operate the tram vehicles.
He said: “The fact Lothian Buses are then being forced to pay up to manage something I don’t think they really want means bus passengers are going to be paying again and again.
“Edinburgh has a good bus service and the majority of people will continue to use the bus as their primary means of public transport.
“But this arrangement would mean they were faced with higher fares and fewer services to subsidise a loss-making tram project.”
Mr Darling said before the council committed to spending any more money it did not have, there should be an external review.
He said: “It’s high time they got someone from outside the council to make a proper external assessment of what is the right thing to do. Is it worth spending any more money on it?
“There is a statable case to get it to Haymarket, but there is no case whatsoever to borrow £231m to get it another mile down the road.”
He said an independent inquiry was essential.
“The way the project has been handled has become a laughing stock,” he said. “There must be an inquiry into what happened between Audit Scotland giving it a clean bill of health in 2007 and where we are now.
“Alex Salmond has said he might have one when it is completed, but leaving it till then is asking for more trouble. Big mistakes have happened at every turn and unless you know what those mistakes were you cannot put it right.”
Councillors will be asked tomorrow to endorse the plan to complete the route from the airport as far as St Andrew Square at a cost of £776m and approve a funding package drawn up by chief executive Sue Bruce.
Transport convener Gordon Mackenzie said if the council did not make a decision by the end of the month there was a good chance the contractors would take it to court. “We do not have the luxury of getting someone else to help us make up our mind.” And he said figures showed Labour’s favoured option of halting the project at Haymarket would be more expensive than carrying on to St Andrew Square.