TIE blocked tough queries

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A COUNCIL official who asked “difficult or awkward” questions of senior staff running the city’s trams project was asked not to attend future meetings, the inquiry heard yesterday.

Rebecca Andrew told Edinburgh’s tram inquiry she felt she was “not being taken seriously” by TIE after they made complaints to her superiors following a tram project board meeting in 2006.

Ms Andrew, who is now principal accountant for capital and major projects at the council, described the experience in her oral evidence before Lord Hardie, who is chairing the long-awaited trams inquiry.

Questioned about the transparency of the arm’s length organisation TIE – and its co-operation with council officials – Ms Andrew said there was a lack of both.

She said this dated back to work on the congestion charging project and continued throughout her work on the trams.

“There was not a systematic or proactive way for sharing important information with council officers,” she said.

“Officers would pick up partial information from board papers or conversations with TIE staff and then ask follow-up questions.

“If difficult or awkward questions were being asked, senior TIE/TEL staff would complain to council senior management.

“I experienced this personally when, after attending a meeting of the tram project board, Donald McGougan was approached and I was requested not to attend future meetings.

“As experienced and highly paid experts, it felt as if TIE did not understand that council officers had a duty to question them and to ensure that the council’s interests were being protected.”

The inquiry, now in its second week, is examining why the trams were delivered five years late at a hugely increased cost and on a truncated route.

Ms Andrew, who was finance manager with the council prior to taking up her current role, also said she felt her concerns were not properly addressed by the board.

“I would raise issues one month and then you would receive next month’s papers and nothing seemed to have changed,” she said.

She also said the number of TIE officials on the board could “weight” decision-making at the meetings.

“There was so much information being produced by TIE and the board had a lot of TIE advisers,” she said. “I didn’t feel that the council officers had the support or the knowledge to challenge what TIE was saying.”

Questioned by inquiry advocate Euan Mackenzie over whether she felt the board was “quite TIE-centric”, Ms Andrew responded: “Yes, that was my feeling.”

She also spoke to the inquiry about the council’s desire to bring in independent experts to carry out a thorough review of the project’s potential financial risks.

But she said this was met with resistance from TIE, saying: “I don’t think they were happy that we were wanting to appoint external advisers, or at least separately from ones they would have recommended that we went with.”

Ms Andrew said she felt TIE was concerned having such advisers would “distract” their team from its work to meet the business case deadlines.

The inquiry was read an email from Matthew Crosse, TIE project director, to Steven Bell, a fellow TIE official, suggesting the request was an “insurance policy”.

The email, dated September 19, 2007, read: “Agree. But this will be their insurance policy (butt cover) for the future if the project overspends.”

Ms Andrew responded she felt the message was “a very inappropriate email for somebody in that position to be sending”.

Also under scrutiny was the question of the unbuilt 1b phase of the works from Roseburn to Granton.

Ms Andrew told the inquiry she had been confused by the focus given by TIE to the extra spur despite Transport Scotland’s insistence that it was the 1a route to Newhaven which should be prioritised.

She said: “At the time, there was an aspiration to build not only the line down to Newhaven but the extra spur.

“However, the funding from Transport Scotland was saying you needed to show evidence that you could build the section 1a, which is the section to Newhaven within the cost envelope before you could put any costs towards the section to Roseburn.

“So I couldn’t understand why TIE had been designing and working to divert utilities along this route, which was less certain of being built, and particularly as it was Transport Scotland who had insisted that 1a be prioritised.

“If they were sitting on the board, you would have felt that they would have had an influence, so that TIE didn’t do that work first.”

When asked what she considered were the main reasons for the tram work failings, Ms Andrew cited a number of factors including the arm’s length project management, a lack of consistent political support and a failure to recognise when things were going wrong.

She said capping the project budget at £545 million was also a factor, as were the project’s procurement strategy and an “over optimistic” approach to risk.

Questioned about other council-owned arm’s length’s companies she had worked with, Ms Andrew named the Forth Ports development company as an example.

But she said TIE was a “strange entity” in that it was reliant on the council for its money, whereas others had been able to generate their own cash and were largely self-sufficient.

Ms Andrew admitted she felt the council “hasn’t had the best track record” with its arm’s length companies.

The inquiry, which is taking place each week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Waverley Gate in Waterloo Place, is expected to run until Christmas and possibly beyond. It runs from 9.30am until 4.30 pm each day.

Members of the public are able attend but spaces are limited to 50.

florence.snead@jpress.co.uk