Martin Hannan: Let us decide on big tram gamble

The tram extension project will cost nearly �300m

The tram extension project will cost nearly �300m

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The more I learn about the tram extension project, the more I think Edinburgh City Council is about to embark on the biggest gamble since starting the trams in the first place.

Given the trams’ history, any sane person must be wondering why the council wants to extend the line to Newhaven at a possible cost of nearly £300 million – if the money has to be raised from borrowing.

The business case says that unless the extension is completed, the trams will never repay the huge sums borrowed to pay for them. Fair enough, but it is a massive gamble to predict that passenger numbers will be as forecast.

Yes, the trams exceeded their target for user numbers in the first year, but is there the same demand for what is effectively a suburban line as there is for a city centre line?

With Lord Hardie’s inquiry barely under way, should councillors gamble that all the necessary lessons have been learned and that there will be no repetition of the fiasco that cost the city so dear?

Our councillors are making huge political gambles as well. The SNP won much support for its anti-trams stance in the past, so can it maintain that and risk splitting the Capital Coalition? Labour is pro-tram now, as are the Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats, but what happens if it all goes crazy again – will the electors wreak revenge?

The biggest personal gamble is by transport convener Lesley Hinds. As Labour’s next candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith at the Holyrood elections in May, will her very strong pro-extension stance win or lose her votes? On a straw poll of people I know in Leith, it’s just too close to call.

There is, of course, a nuclear option. Right now Lothian Buses must be worth somewhere north of £300m given its revenues and reserves. Why not sell the company on the proviso that an incoming private sector operator builds the tram extension? In one go, the trams debt goes, with plenty cash left over. But that’s a non-starter, isn’t it?

I thought current Leith MSP Malcolm Chisholm got it exactly right the other day when he told the News that “in the longer term [the extension] is financially necessary and will happen”.

Therein lies a clue to a possible resolution on Thursday. Most councillors, including SNP members, accept the extension, and indeed other lines, must happen eventually. But as Chisholm says, that’s in “the longer term,” and right now there is no utterly overriding need for the extension project to proceed at breakneck pace.

Just think what message it would send to the citizens being told about £141m in cuts, not to mention the 2000 employees who are going to lose their jobs, if the council spends money on a tram extension now. Crisis, what crisis?

The answer lies in a word that Scots cherish more than ever: democracy. Neither Labour nor the SNP or Tories said a word about extending the trams in their election manifestos in 2012. Given everything, the extension decision should be postponed until after the next election in 2017 with all parties saying in their manifestos what their stance would be. It’s a big gamble for us all, so for once why not let the people decide?

We must stand united with our French friends

There are no words of mine that I wish to add to the millions already expended on the tragedy of Paris on Friday. Instead I turn to the words of La Marseillaise, the anthem of France, written in 1792 by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle.

These lines are from the verses that are not usually sung:

“Vile despots would have themselves, the masters of our destinies . . . everyone is a soldier to combat you, if they fall, our young heroes, the earth will produce new ones to fight against you.”

These are the darkest of days, but the slaughter of innocent people can only ever provoke revulsion in the vast majority of human hearts. That’s why we stand with France and sing La Marseillaise.

Milk and money has turned sour

As the Evening News reported, young Chishimbe Kondolo was shocked when she came from Zambia and found food banks. She had thought Scotland was a rich country, a “land of milk and money”.

Well, Chishimbe, Scotland is indeed a wealthy land of milk and money. The problem is that too much of that milk and money is concentrated in too few hands.

Deep breath . . now talk English

Historic Environment Scotland launched its first public consultation yesterday. I wish the Edinburgh-based organisation all the very best for its future, but can’t help thinking that the first prize it will qualify for is a gobbledygook award.

Here’s one short sample of its corporate plan: “Our internal framework comprises our vision, values, and five strategic themes. Taken together these provide the broad framework for our strategic outcomes, objectives, activities and performance measures that are set out in our corporate plan and the strategies, policies and business plans that underpin its successful delivery.”

Phew, what a mouthful from a public body.