John McLellan: Give city more money for trams

The end of the tram line at York Place. Picture: Jane Barlow
The end of the tram line at York Place. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Imagine the government ordered a town of 30,000 homes to be built. That could easily be a community of about 60,000 people.

Then imagine it instructed the town to be built within the Edinburgh boundaries, but it was up to the city council to work out how these new people were to get about at the same time as meet climate change targets.

We’re here because we’re here and the actions of the future cannot be based solely on fear of repeating the mistakes of the past

John McLellan

Fanciful maybe, but that’s tantamount to what’s happened now the SNP administration has ruled out more cash to extend the Edinburgh tram line.

Council officials are said to be disappointed, especially as the SNP half of the ruling city council group has been warming to the idea of finishing the line to Leith at a cost that by comparison seems a reasonable 
£80 million.

But having fought election after election on the basis of opposing trams it would be a bit much to expect a complete U-turn so close to the big UK vote in May.

Nonetheless, it exposes a contradiction in government attitude towards the capital city by insisting Edinburgh should absorb thousands of new homes but at the same time arguing that how thousands of new inhabitants get about is entirely a local 
matter. Yet trams and houses are inextricably linked because without the tram extension to the coast the full potential for housing from Ocean Terminal out to the old gasworks site is unlikely to be realised.

And to minimise pressure on the green belt at places like Cammo the vision for hundreds of new homes around Granton needs to be revived.

But even with all available sites developed, Edinburgh still falls 8000 short of the government’s target of 32,000 new homes built by 2025.

Therefore it is consistent for the government to demand the acceleration of house-building and intervene to shorten an appeal against a decision by the Labour-led city coalition to reject a scheme to develop fields at Cammo.

Less consistent, then, is the position of the newly-selected West Edinburgh SNP candidate Michelle Thompson, who claimed on Twitter that “only the SNP” can safeguard the land.

Maybe she was just being smart because by the same token, only the SNP government can privatise the Scottish NHS or introduce tuition fees for Scottish university students. We’ll see. The city SNP group is moving towards support for what is becoming known as the North Garden District across the city bypass from Edinburgh Park, a plan which makes sense but will be bitterly opposed by the conservation lobby.

But even the entire Garden District site only promises 3500 homes so the shortfall is still massive.

There is also the housing element of the International Business Gateway to the North of the A8 which if recently published images are anything to go by has the potential to be the sink estate of the future.

So what’s the answer then? Housing policy, as I argued last week, is firmly in the grip of the SNP. So too is urban transport, as we have seen with the successful construction of the Borders Railway and the Queensferry Crossing, neither of which were Edinburgh’s choice.

Both these projects demonstrate the key role transport around Edinburgh plays in the wider economic well-being far beyond the city limits.

And in the wake of this week’s gloomy Oil & Gas UK report into the future of the North Sea sector, Scotland needs all its economic cylinders firing.

But even if the new links were to lift some pressure on housing by allowing people to live further away, and there is no evidence to suggest it will, more commuters will only increase pressure on transport within the city boundaries.

In any case, the government demand for homes will remain once these new links are open so if anything the impact on transport will be even greater.

Edinburgh’s roads are already crammed at key times so the only way housing capacity on inner city brownfield sites can be maximised – and attempt to keep a lid on prices 
and curtail the need to build further out – is by finding other means of moving the thousands of new inhabitants to their places of work, study and play.

Already surpassing targets without taking passengers from the buses, trams are the way to do it.

Transport Minister Derek MacKay proved to be a sensible minister at local government, but his view that enough government cash has already been poured into the tram system may be for the political benefit of the rest of the country but does little to address the situation the city faces.

As they used to say in the trenches, we’re here because we’re here and the actions of the future cannot be based solely on fear of repeating the mistakes of the past, especially when the mistakes are now understood.

Nor can government go on imposing policies and ignoring the consequences.

My seven-point plan to make sure there are no more Malcolm Rifkind moments

It’s 18 years since Sir Malcolm Rifkind was a local MP and ten since he became MP for Kensington and Chelsea, but until this week his reputation was still very much that of one of Scotland’s most highly-regarded politicians.

Local Conservatives even hoped he would be able to play a part in the Edinburgh election campaign later this year. Now he has got plenty time but his career has come to a juddering, embarrassing and ignominious end, a victim of a Channel 4 sting in the latest cash-for-access furore.

We may not have seen the last of him in politics if a place in the Lords is made available when the storm has calmed. After all, even a perjurer like Lord Archer can still sit.

After over 20 years as MP for Edinburgh Pentlands, one of only four ministers to serve throughout the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major administrations and latterly as chairman of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee he was one of the genuinely substantial figures still active in British politics.

Not without a sense of humour, after losing the seat to Labour’s Lynda Clarke in the 1997 wipe-out he was one of the first to crack the now familiar joke that he knew he was out of office when he got in the back of a car and it didn’t go anywhere. Some readers may also remember his weekly column in the Evening News at the time, which ended after he failed to regain Pentlands in 2001.

In the period between defeat and re-election in 2005 his considerable interests beyond politics were no secret, in particular his connections with the oil industry in Azerbaijan.

The rights and wrongs of how he was recorded offering up his contacts book for cash and whether he has breached the parliamentary code of conduct will be judged at a later date. But with his party making it clear that with an election coming up the perception of sleaze was as politically damaging as actual guilt, the one sensible thing he has done in all of this is to accept his days as an MP are over.

Would he have survived if an election wasn’t pending? Who knows, but it is and it’s right for him to step aside.

The snatched video of him trying to impress female representatives of a fictitious Chinese company was embarrassing enough, but as damning as anything else was his claim to have lots of free time and to spend much of it reading or walking. Hardly criminal offences, and when I’m 68 I rather hope I’ll be able to report the same, but it’s not what you want to to hear from a senior MP with a significant role in the scrutiny of our intelligence services.

He is said to have angered many colleagues, and I’m not surprised. Free time is not something the lone Scottish Tory MP David Mundell enjoys much of, even at weekends.

His Commons career may be over, but the problem of a system which lacks any clarity and transparency remains and from the ensuing debate this week we are no closer to a solution.

Pay MPs more? The public would never accept it.

Public funding of political parties? Ditto, and wouldn’t solve it anyway.

Ban all outside interests? Only the comfortably wealthy or people earning less than the current salary of £67,000 would stand, and unless you are already employed by a political party that doesn’t cover the sacrifice needed to campaign in the first place.

And rather than a cross-section of society we would end up with a parliament dominated by retired people and professional politicians. No change there then.

Ban access of lobbyists to politicians? Surely it’s the right of individuals and organisations to make politicians aware of their views and even so, a way would be found to make contact.

So here are a few sugge-stions:

1: An explicit ban on elected politicians from receiving private fees for requesting information, even if it is technically in the public domain.

2: An explicit ban on receiving payment for accessing other government figures or officials.

3: The standardisation of all staff costs.

4: As in Australia, the construction of standard state-funded accommodation for all MPs outside London (and for that matter for MSPs who live over an hour away from Holyrood). If they want their own place, they must fund it.

5: And then we can talk about salary.

6: And seeing as we in the Press have been lectured by politicians about how to set up a system of independent scrutiny, why don’t they try a bit of it themselves. David Normington, the public appointments commissioner, should be only too happy to advise.

7: And to make sure lobbyists don’t get into parliament unannounced, replace the House of Lords.

And as for Sir Malcolm, well there is always the pop-up shop in Tollcross.

Gold taps aff, please, to provide a new home for Edinburgh rugby

£40 million for a new home for Edinburgh Rugby? Come off it, said my old colleague, the political commentator and rugby aficionado Alex Massie.

Alex, as befitting a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, keeps a close eye on all matters Irish and has helpfully pointed to the current construction of a fitting second home for Munster Rugby in Cork.

A new 3500-seater stand with full changing, medical, media and reception facilities is being built at Musgrave Park, or Irish Independent Park as it is now known thanks to a newspaper sponsorship deal, at a cost of ¤3.2m. That’s around £3m to bring capacity up to over 9000.

But the SRU reckon a home for Edinburgh could cost £15-20m, the council says about £40m. Gold taps indeed.

So if they built two stands similar to those at Musgrave, it suggests a very comfortable home for Edinburgh Rugby at Meadowbank or the back pitches at Murrayfield could be built for about £10m.

Munster is a side which Edinburgh should regard as their equal and this, remember, is for their back-up ground – the really big Munster matches are played at Thomond Park in Limerick which holds 29,000.

OK so, Edinburgh isn’t Cork, but it’s not £30m or, for that matter, about £10m different.

Just think if agreement could be reached with the ice rink and, however unlikely it seems just now, the council. Visualise a Murrayfield sports village with an athletics track, an 8000-seat rugby ground, a 5000-seat multi-use arena and a tram station to boot. That sounds like a far greater asset for the city than the plan for Meadowbank. And guess which team Edinburgh play next at home? I suggest they ask the Munstermen to make sure their builder flies in with the team.

n On the subject of rugby money, two weeks ago I told readers about the wonderful deals available for Scotland’s technically sold out home rugby international against Ireland through the Scottish Rugby Union’s “secondary ticketing partner” Viagogo.

Prices seem to have come down a bit so you can see the match for as little as £95 (plus booking, handling and VAT) or as much as £741, which with all the add-ons will leave you with the price of a pie and a Guinness out of a grand.

But for the other side of the coin, I had a look to see what was on offer for tomorrow’s match against Italy. Even though there were plenty of good seats available from the SRU for £70, some clowns on Viagogo were asking around £200 for upper tier tickets. Top price was eight high in the West stand for £210, not including the cost of the binoculars you need.

However, I’m told that at least all the Viagogo tickets are bona fide and, as it was put to me, not sold with the ink still wet in the Roseburn Bar by some bloke from Hackney. Fair enough.

The Viagogo deal is worth a six-figure sum to Scottish Rugby, so I suppose that dosh is better in the Murrayfield coffers than lighting a tout’s cigar at the Romford dogs.

But how times have changed from the days when SRU director and ex-president Ian MacLauchlan was ostracised by Murrayfield for making money from his autobiography.