Cost row ahead of tram vote

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EDINBURGH’S embattled tram project was in fresh turmoil today as the council’s new costings were immediately thrown into doubt – just seven days before a crunch vote on the future of the scheme.

A report due to go before councillors next week will set out a cost of £700 million to complete the line from the airport to Haymarket, up to £773m to build to St Andrew Square, and up to £740m to scrap the scheme altogether.

But the Evening News has learned contractor Bilfinger Berger has told the council it can build to Haymarket for less.

It comes as fresh divisions emerged between the city’s 58 councillors, with Labour opposing any more funding, the city’s Lib Dem transport leader insisting more Scottish Government funding is still an option, and SNP deputy council leader Steve Cardownie refusing to reveal how his party will vote and blaming his political opponents for the mess.

Today, there were calls for the decision on the future of the project, which was supposed to cost £545m for a line from the airport to Newhaven, to be taken out of the hands of councillors.

And the Evening News is calling on our readers to send a message to their councillor on what they want to happen in their city with their money.

The latest figures emerged after councillors were given confidential briefings ahead of the publication of a long-awaited report on the future of the project next week.

Almost immediately questions began to be asked about how the figures had been arrived at, with suggestions that the price to Haymarket was far more than that quoted by contractors. Sources close to the consortium confirmed to the News that the Haymarket figure “seemed high”.

Andrew Burns, leader of Labour on the council, said it was time for a public inquiry, adding that for the time being the line should be built no further than Haymarket.

He said: “I believe it would be wrong to commit further public money to trams.”

But Councillor Cardownie said the SNP was not to blame, despite running the administration along with the Lib Dems for the past three years.

He said: “Four times we [the SNP] have tried to have the project scrapped and the other parties have thrown it back at us.

“The SNP could be forgiven for saying it’s not our project – they [the other parties] got us into this mess, then can get us out.

“It’s not this administration that’s running this project. It was the previous administration that allowed TIE to run the project, so they can’t say now that it’s the council running it.”

When asked how he would vote, he said: “I have no idea. We need to scrutinise the figures. But it is their [the other parties] mess, why should the SNP help them find a solution?”

Councillors will next week be asked to vote in favour of an option which will allow officials to explore ways of funding the line as far as the city centre, either through a handout from the Scottish Government or borrowing approved by ministers.

However, any update is not likely to be available until the government’s Strategic Spending Review in September, meaning the earliest councillors will be able to vote will be October.

Jeremy Balfour, leader of the Tories on the council, said: “The figures are surprising and disappointingly high. We need to see how they came about.

“It does seem interesting that the figures for Haymarket and St Andrew Square are so close together, given the big difference in the amount of work needed for the two projects.”

Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said the Scottish Government should now set up an independent public inquiry to establish the true situation and recommend a way forward.

She said: “I don’t think any politicians in the council can be trusted to make a decision of this size in the run-up to the council elections next May.”

Should councillors vote to build the line to St Andrew Square, officials will have just a matter of months to come up with the £173m shortfall.

Councillor Gordon Mackenzie, the city’s transport convener, said he was continuing to “explore all available options”.

When asked if the Scottish Government had changed its “not a penny more” stance, he said: “I have not heard anything to suggest they have or to say we should not continue to explore that as an option.”

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The Scottish Government opposed the project, but the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of funding up to a maximum of £500m – a figure that ministers will not increase.”

cmarshall@edinburghnews.com