Rory Reynolds: The year of the tram

An Edinburgh tram. Picture: Ian Rutherford
An Edinburgh tram. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IF YOU thought you had heard a lot about the trams already, then brace yourself – because you ain’t heard nothing yet.

The next 12 months are shaping up to be the Year of the Tram. There will be no getting away from the most talked about public works in the country since the building of the Scottish Parliament as 2013 draws to a close.

The big question that remains to be decided is whether we will be celebrating or slumped in the depths of despair. If all goes to plan over the months ahead, then at the very least all the disruption and frustration will be over and we will be on the verge of being able to catch a tram the next time we want to travel between Princes Street and the airport.

Or, whisper it, the trams might even be up and running. Despite an official start date of summer 2014, there remains a cautious optimism that services could start sooner than that, even by the end of the year.

The council has been keen to trumpet the many clear signs of progress in recent months as the tram line takes shape along its 11km route, but even privately those connected to the project continue to caution that there is a long way to go before the first passenger service starts to run.

Councillors will be as keen as city motorists and traders to see the project finally deliver on at least part of what was initially promised.

There remain many stakeholders in the city who would love to see the tram line extended beyond its current very limited reach. So, if the tram works continue as smoothly as they appear to have done in recent months, watch out for growing chatter about the prospects of taking the trams down to Leith – or even further.

But the tram project won’t be the only issue which will draw attention in the coming year . . .

BUS LANE FINES

Transport leader Lesley Hinds is facing demands for action to patch up the Capital’s pothole-ridden roads. The arguments claim that any money spent in this way boosts employment and attracts investors to the city. Councillor Hinds will be pushing for extra cash ahead of the £1.15 billion city budget being set in February, but is also likely to come under pressure herself to look at ways of raising extra revenue.

That will include considering the possibility of extending the bus lane camera network, which had to be put on hold just weeks after being launched, with thousands of complaints about unfair fines. The potential for raising money will have to be balanced against the possible backlash if any new cameras cause problems like those experienced last year.

SERVICE CUTS

There will be a lot of talk in the coming weeks about the need to cut back on public spending as the council has to play its part in meeting UK and Scottish Government austerity targets.

While there is no doubt that some tough decisions will have to be made, the reality is that the £10.8 million in cuts which the local authority is facing are really seen as small fry in the context of an overall budget of £1.15bn.

The tougher test will come in future years as the council must look to save £95m by 2018.

JOBS

While the council will not be overly worried about this year’s cuts, they will be anxious about meeting job creation targets. Edinburgh continues to outperform rival cities, attracting the Green Investment Bank and investment in the recovering financial services industry, as well as renewable energy giants like Gamesa and Mitsubishi to Leith Docks.

In 2012, investment from firms in other countries created 2000 jobs alone – but city leaders have a fight on their hands. The launch of the Strategy for Jobs at the Assembly Rooms in September, in which Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed businesses of all sizes, set the ambitious target of creating 20,000 new jobs by 2017 . “One statistic that always jumps out at me is the demand for jobs in Edinburgh is projected to grow at around twice the rate as the supply of jobs over the next few years,” says Frank Ross, who as the newly appointed city economy leader is tasked with persuading firms to settle here, instead of a host of rivals such as Glasgow and Manchester.

Crucially, the Edinburgh Guarantee, which takes the 400 city pupils who go straight on to benefits every year and gives them paid placements with Edinburgh City Council and Standard Life, among others, is expanding for its second year – but more firms need to get on board.

HOUSING

Arguably the most pressing issue on the minds of young professionals and families is the cost of housing. With an average house price of £228,500 in Edinburgh, there is no more expensive city in which to live in Scotland.

In 2012 some 1500 homes got the go-ahead from city planners, but the Capital needs 3000 every year to keep up and avoid a housing crises. Delivering already promised new homes – and approving thousands more this year – will be the key measure of success for the city council.

In the private housing market, developers cannot secure bank loans to fund projects and the council is considering handing over land initially for free, on the condition that companies pay up when the homes they build are sold.

“The main problem for agents is the paucity of new supply across all price levels, which is in danger of becoming a dearth,” says Simon Rettie of Rettie & Co. “This can paralyse a marketplace hungry for new prospects. The early weeks of 2013 are likely to be critical in redressing or exacerbating any shortage.”

POLITICS

The honeymoon period that greeted the start of the unexpected union of Labour and SNP at the City Chambers is still ongoing. While there are some personality clashes and old grudges, the partnership has so far worked better than many predicted.

Council leader Andrew Burns, a mild-mannered one-time constitutional affairs lecturer, and his SNP deputy, Steve Cardownie, have not yet been through the kind of tests which saw sparks fly between the latter and the last council leader, Lib Dem Jenny Dawe. That might only come when the need to shrink the city budget goes beyond the current “efficiency savings” and real cuts are needed.

One test for Cllr Burns this year will be starting to deliver on his much talked about “Co-operative council”, an idea billed as Labour’s version of David Cameron’s Big Society.

It promises to hand communities the opportunity to run some of their own services, such as housing and childcare, and help to set up local energy co-operatives, where residents of apartment blocks, for instance, can invest in solar energy and claim back cash from the UK Government for creating renewable energy.

If the trams stay on track, that might yet be the council’s biggest challenge over the coming year.