John McLellan: Edinburgh can fix dent in its pride

Former Evening News editor John McLellan. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
Former Evening News editor John McLellan. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
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Just when you thought you’d read the last tram blunder story, along comes freshly-cracked concrete beneath the track before the service has even started.

Edinburgh folk shake their heads and comedians gear up for another Fringe of easy gags at their host city’s expense.

We, of course, stopped laughing years ago. It’s cost too much money and seen too many people at best inconvenienced and at worst bankrupted for it to be funny.

As a previous editor of this newspaper and others in Edinburgh, I had a ringside seat for this development and all the others stretching back to the early 90s. And I can remember only too well the dismay among tram bosses years ago when I ran the front page headline “Holyrood on wheels”.

Of course I was wrong – it turned out to be much worse than that.

Ah, Holyrood. Its construction almost seems a model of efficiency and prudence by comparison, but the Evening News and I were the subject of complaint from a very senior politician for having the temerity to report that the cost of the project had risen to over £200m. Again, if only that had been true and we would have been £200m better off.

Even before the staging post of £200m had been reached, the same politician had already dismissed growing concerns about Holyrood’s spiralling bill by airily stating that “History will not record the name of the accountant”.

The parallels between the Scottish Parliament and trams projects are considerable; both trophy projects with, at best, ambiguous contracts, both plagued by construction problems, both vastly over-budget and both representing massive dents to public confidence and civic pride.

Now the identity of accountants responsible for Holyrood and the trams may well not trip off our tonques, but such a glib attitude to taxpayers’ money seriously under-estimated the effect on the public morale.

We are still feeling the effects today and it is partly due to the fear of public anger which caused the wrangles between the tram chiefs and their contractors which ultimately led to costly legal battles and construction delays. It is why, despite very good arguments for the trams to be extended, that new lines could be decades away.

Fear of a negative public reaction was the real reason the initial Holyrood price was never going to reflect the task in hand. The original cost estimate for the Scottish Parliament building of £40m was based on a plain office block on a problem-free site. The eventual location and the eccentric design were anything but and a massive over-spend was inevitable once the plans were laid and before a breeze block was laid.

I’ve spent the last 18 months in Holyrood for the Scottish 
Conservatives, and believe me eccentric doesn’t begin to describe it. If you think it looks mad from the outside you should try working there – Indiana Jones would find it easier to escape the Temple of Doom than get from the MSP block to the public exit.

Similarly, Edinburgh officials were warned by their Dublin counterparts that if they had an idea how much the tram project would cost they should at least double it. The message from Dublin’s transport people was simple – once the streets in an ancient city were excavated it would be impossible to predict what would happen. And I know this to be true because I was there when they were told.

But I have another confession to make. As editor of the Evening News I supported both the choice of Holyrood for the Scottish parliament site and the re-creation of the Edinburgh tram network (and yes, some unkind people might say that with that track record and my recent history with the Tories I really did play rugby for too long).

And even with hindsight I’d do the same again. That’s not to say I supported the way in which both projects were executed, far from it, but in terms of creating a clear symbol of the emerging Scottish democratic settlement and providing a rapidly expanding and confident capital city with a much-needed modern transport infrastructure, I stand by those decisions.

Sadly, the tram project has come to mirror Edinburgh’s experience through the years of financial crisis. Conceived in a time of plenty when the Royal Bank of Scotland was seemingly all-conquering, it is coming to life only as we crawl from the wreckage of a banking crash in which RBS was smashed and the Bank of Scotland lost in all but name.

It’s hard to believe that in June 2007, on the breaker of civic and national optimism I was able to declare an entire edition of the Evening News would be Good News Day. Business was booming, employment was up, property prices were robust, gap sites were being filled, the Waterfront was en route to being the second Edinburgh Newtown. Life in Edinburgh was good. But with the exception of some city analysts and one or two notable commentators like Scots historian Niall Ferguson, few realised we stood on the precipice of disaster.

In October 2007, as Fred Goodwin unknowingly signed his death warrant by sealing the deal to acquire the fatally debt-ridden Dutch bank ABN Amro, he hosted a drinks party at Gogarburn where the great and the good of civic Edinburgh could toast his success with wine and oysters.

At least the now legendary scallop kitchen would have been put to some use before the end came.

The challenge now is for the city to recover that sense of optimism, ambition and drive; chastened by the obvious blunders of the past, but not held back by them.

And there is much to be optimistic about. RBS and the Bank of Scotland are still with us. Standard Life remains a major independent institution. Edinburgh escaped the worst of the property crash and the way is clear for economic development to pick up in ways which were not possible even ten years ago. And yes, for whatever they are worth just now, the trams will be running.

And no matter the result, the referendum should provide the launch pad for the next phase of the city’s development. The challenge, whatever shape it takes, will be to make sure the opportunity is fully harnessed.

• John McLellan is a former editor of the Evening News, the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday