John McLellan: Tram inquiry jigsaw pieces missing

With trams now up and running in Edinburgh, the next question is whether they can go further. Picture: Scott Taylor
With trams now up and running in Edinburgh, the next question is whether they can go further. Picture: Scott Taylor
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The resurrection of the tram line down Leith Walk could happen a lot sooner than many people expected, if a new plan under now under discussion comes off.

A report going to Edinburgh Council next month is likely to recommend carrying out a new feasibility study to look at the costs and practicalities of completing the route to Newhaven. The study might cost £40,000 but if approved a final blueprint could be ready in the spring.

The success of the line so far, the extent of the work already done and the fact that all the rolling stock and hardware has already been bought, have convinced senior figures it is right to press ahead. But crucially there is a strong belief that lessons have been learnt from the previous contracts debacle and there will be no repeat.

Further, a contribution from the 
St James Centre developers Henderson Global could mean the line can be taken as far as McDonald Road for little or no additional cost to the council.

What is now being considered is a phased construction programme, with the first section to McDonald Road and the second to the Foot of the Walk completed before the 2017 local elections.

If that is achieved, the third and fourth sections to Ocean Terminal and finally to Newhaven will follow afterwards.

Senior sources say they are not just keen to ensure the investment in materials and moving the utilities does not go to 
waste, but to restore some faith in the city’s ability to run an infrastructure project efficiently. If that can be achieved, the growing pressure for housing development is such that there is a renewed appetite to resurrect the Granton Spur from Newhaven to Roseburn and link new housing on the Shore with employment opportunities at the airport’s International Business Gateway.

Finding the cash is where the bid for £1bn City Deal revealed in yesterday’s Evening News kicks in, a process by which local authorities can borrow cash to fund infrastructure projects based on estimates of rising tax income in the future.

The scheme is aimed at city regions so the projects must benefit all the area’s local authorities, not just Edinburgh. Starting the negotiations now could put the deal in place by next summer at the earliest, so a period of intensive horse-trading between the councils to agree priorities is under way.

Glasgow has just secured such a deal and its top priority is the previously scrapped Glasgow Airport rail link to Central Station, with a direct benefit to both Renfrewshire and Glasgow Council areas, but also an indirect gain for the whole region by improving a major utility.

The other Lothian authorities are unlikely to sit back and let all the loot go into trams, or indeed Leith Docks as suggested by Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz, but taking the line to Newbridge as originally envisaged, might win the support of West Lothian if a case could be made for a Broxburn extension.

Out that way, Edinburgh West MP Mike Crockart’s early pitch for road and rail improvements to Edinburgh Airport could curry favour.

The abandoned Edinburgh Airport Rail Link project was a casualty of the change of Scottish Government in 2007 and the decision to go ahead with trams, but a direct route to places like Dundee might be an idea whose time has come.

So, too, will the unresolved issue of higher traffic flows across the Forth when the second crossing opens in 2016 be high on Fife’s agenda.

Powering up the Edinburgh city region for international competition is right at the top of the agenda now the referendum is out the way, and as well as bidding for a City Deal, Edinburgh is set to join the Core Cities Network, an alliance of the eight biggest regions outside London which is proving effective in wresting cash from Westminster.

With the SNP in coalition in the Capital, it was politically impossible before the referendum for the council to join a UK organisation headquartered in Manchester, but now the road is clear.

While debate about devolved powers to Holyrood will reignite in the next fortnight when the Smith Commission reports on St Andrew’s Day, the devolution of power to cities might not make as many headlines, but it’s just as important.

More twists to come for scottish labour

As the Scottish Labour leadership wends its way towards a conclusion next month, even those on the inside of the tussle are unsure as to how the dice will roll.

But supporters of the candidate most commentators have already written off, Edinburgh MSP Sarah Boyack, almost certainly hold the key.

Neither Jim Murphy, with strong backing from Labour parliamentarians, nor union-backed Neil Findlay are expected to win the first round outright, so if Boyack is knocked out the second preferences of her supporters could tip the balance.

But as the middle ground candidate, even those close to her have no idea which way the second choices will go, so one of the other two will need to establish a convincing lead to be confident of victory.

One way or another, Lothian MSPs will be at the forefront of the party’s direction at Holyrood; win or lose, Findlay will have developed a power base and Kez Dugdale is odds-on to win the deputy leadership.

A year ago, who would have put money on the regular encounters at First Minister’s Questions being between Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kez Dugdale?

It’s a far cry from 1999 when Donald Dewar was quizzed every Thursday by Alex Salmond and David McLetchie. And the signs are we could be better off for it.

A need for calm heads in time of crisis

Passions are running high at Lothian Buses and calm heads will be needed to get the company through the management crisis in which it is currently engulfed.

Fortunately, sense quickly prevailed this week when Unite union officials intervened to end a staff walk-out in support of operations director Bill Campbell, one of three executive directors to have lost a grievance case against their boss, chief executive Ian Craig.

Campbell is a popular figure, who former colleagues say is a level-headed individual, and if so something has gone badly astray at the top of the firm.

Senior figures seem to have been playing a game of poker and so far poker-face Craig has won every hand. A successful case against him by his three board colleagues would almost certainly have forced his departure, but the grievances were not upheld.

The chair Ann Faulds, who had cleared him of misconduct, judged wrongly she would be successful in arguing he should leave anyway and with the Council backing Craig it is she who has been forced out.

Council sources say there was never any chance of Craig being forced to quit because apart from the charges against him being dismissed, the company continues to perform well. Not only are tram passenger numbers exceeding targets at 90,000 a week, but bus passenger figures also continue to increase despite the trams.

Perhaps that is because more people are taking the tram from the airport rather than hiring taxis, but it’s a remarkable performance nonetheless.

So councillors would be failing in their duty to protect the public purse if they opened the door to a massive compensation claim from someone who could point to a solid record of achievement.

The onus is now on the board to resolve their differences and for the three who lost their case to get on with their jobs.

However, it might not be as simple as that. If the relationships have irretrievably broken down, as Faulds obviously believed, then getting on with the job will not be an option but they will not want to simply resign and walk away with nothing.

Under these circumstances, I would not be at all surprised if one or all three claim excess stress means they go on long-term leave of absence until a compensation agreement can be agreed for their departure.

And along the way, the company might find it doesn’t need quite so many people on big six-figure salaries to tick along.