Brian Monteith: Be sure of case for trams before reopening purse

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The trams in Edinburgh are a Marmite issue. You either like them or loathe them – but we all know they are hear to stay, no matter how much they cost to build and how much they cost to subsidise each week.

I was against the trams when they were first mooted, I thought them too expensive and the routes proposed missed out areas in dire need of better transport links. Many people spoke out but most of them were not politicians or in a position of power.

We all know what happened next; they became a vanity project for politicians of all parties and it was therefore impossible for the public to stop them. Government money seemed easy to come by at the time (it is never easy for it’s made from the seat of the people – but perceptions are not reality) and so the scheme went ahead.

Then it became clear they were over budget and overdue. Then, by cutting the route to the bare minimum to save the project they became underwhelming.

Now the council has got an estimate of the price to extend the trams from York Place into Newhaven – part of the original route that was cut back. It will apparently cost another £145 million to extend the reach of the trams and the council is hoping that the Scottish Government will contribute.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that Edinburgh council and the Scottish Government could be throwing good money after bad; will the estimate of £145m stick – or will it climb and climb like the last time?

Is there a robust (and I really mean “robust”) business case that shows extending the solitary tram line will make it generate more journeys that begin to help it pay its way? Without such a basis, then yes, we would be throwing good money after bad. We would simply be burning more money and asking the council taxpayers of the future to pick up the tab.

This is what’s called generational theft – commencing municipal or government projects that cannot be afforded and then asking the citizens of the future to meet the debts.

It’s immoral and scandalous and we should stop our politicians doing it.

The second way to look at it is that all the money invested in the trams thus far has been a waste and will remain a waste until there is a substantial enough network to make the system workable. In other words there will have to be more public money spent on the trams to extend it, not just to Leith but also to other Edinburgh conurbations that do not enjoy good enough transport links – and we had better get used to that fact.

If that is indeed the case then it would be better now, while interest rates are low, to work out what would be the best network for the city and develop a programme of how it could be financed and built, and how long it would take.

The council should then look at how it can meet the financial demands and be prepared to take brave decisions such as selling shares in Lothian Buses to the public or other bus companies and getting developers adjacent to the routes to contribute.

Of course there’s another question that has to be asked and it is this, what else could the council do with £145m in capital expenditure – and would that be more worthwhile? For instance, could it reinstate the South Suburban rail line to passenger traffic for a great deal less and would this be a better plan?

The case for extending the trams is not clear cut but without answering those questions it shouldn’t happen.

EU stifles trade

A couple of weeks back I warned about the CBI and big industries trying to scaremonger us into thinking that jobs would be lost as trade would become more difficult and companies would leave the UK. I argued that the threats of businesses like Airbus should be ignored as they have more to lose from moving and a great deal to gain from staying. I can now tell readers that Airbus has gone on record and stated that it will not be moving anywhere, whether the UK leaves or stays in the EU.

The bosses deserve credit for coming clean and telling the truth. Now all we need is for others like Nissan to do the same. The French-Japanese car manufacturer in Teeside once warned it would leave the UK if we didn’t join the Euro. Thankfully we ignored them and didn’t – and guess what? Nissan increased its investment in the UK!

Also this week Australia has just signed a trade deal with China – to help increase trade between both countries. The EU has thus far failed to sign a trade deal with China (or indeed India) and the UK is not allowed to cut a deal of its own – so we have to wait, and wait, and wait. The negotiations with India have been going on for seven years... it would all be easier if we were outside this expensive club for elitist politicians.