AN e-mail which is set to be a key piece of evidence at the inquiry into Edinburgh’s tram fiasco suggests council officials may have kept politicians in the dark at the height of the controversy over the project.
As the long-running dispute between the council’s trams firm TIE and the construction consortium raged on and speculation grew about the rising cost and further delays, an official advised his new boss to be “very careful” what he told councillors about the project and explained they had been kept on a “restricted info flow”.
Dated January 8, 2010, the e-mail is a covering note for a briefing document summarising the history of the project and its state at that time.
In it, Nick Smith, then a solicitor in the council’s legal services division, tells Alastair Maclean, who had recently joined the council as head of legal: “Please treat the attached as highly confidential. Dissemination of the actual history here could cause serious problems and we definitely don’t want to set hares running.”
He added: “I’m sure you will be anyway, but be very careful what info you impart to the politicians as the directors and TIE have kept them on a restricted info flow – given current sensitivities it is critical that this remains in place.”
It is understood the e-mail has since been shown to politicians and officials who played key roles in the trams project at that time and they are likely to be questioned about its contents at public hearings when they begin later this year.
Senior councillors were said to be “horrified” when they learned of the e-mail.
One said: “It totally undermines the relationship between councillors and officials. It’s fundamental to the way local government works that there has to be a trust between elected members and senior officers.”
Another added: “As someone involved in perhaps the biggest project that the council ever delivered I always believed I received all the relevant information about the trams, and to be frank I find it deeply shocking that this was not the case. Councillors were legally and morally entitled to that information, just as it was the duty of council officers to provide it. I very much hope all of those responsible are exposed and fully held to account for their actions.”
However, the council insisted Mr Smith’s comments were not about withholding the facts about the project, only making sure the correct information went to the right people at the appropriate time.
Mr Smith – who has now succeeded Mr Maclean as head of legal – was the most junior lawyer on the council’s legal team at the time and is expected to robustly defend his actions in a submission to Lord Hardie’s inquiry.
The e-mail was sent at the height of the legal disputes over the bungled project just weeks before it emerged the estimated cost of the project had risen, again, from £545m to at least £600m. It finally cost £776m, plus more than £200m on interest on a 30-year loan.
A council spokesman said: “Taken out of context, this e-mail could be misinterpreted. It was not an attempt to keep information from members; rather to ensure consistent lines of communication.
“The council and TIE were at the height of the dispute with the contractor and it was imperative that all political groups received accurate and complete information at the same time.
“The advice to our then head of legal, newly in post, related to the route and timing of information sharing with members – not its quality or quantity. This was intended to protect the council’s commercial and legal position as far as possible.”
The council claims elements of the potted history document – such as the rising cost – were particularly sensitive and, if inadvertently revealed, could harm its negotiating position in the dispute.
The spokesman added: “The council continues to co-operate fully with the inquiry, providing whatever support and assistance we can.”