City Deal could help fund Edinburgh tram extension to Leith and beyond

CONTROVERSIAL plans to extend the trams down into Leith and beyond could form part of Edinburgh's multi-billion pound City Deal, it has emerged.

Monday, 15th August 2016, 8:02 am
Updated Monday, 15th August 2016, 9:03 am
Edinburgh trams could be extended to Leith. Picture; Lesley Martin

Council chiefs are in talks with Chancellor Philip Hammond and the UK and Scottish governments to pump cash into the project – and help finish what was started almost a decade ago.

City chief executive Andrew Kerr said there was “no doubt” an expansion of the Capital’s tram system was an option for boosting Leith and the waterfront. But critics insisted the cash could be better spent elsewhere – and argued there was “no such thing as government money, only taxpayers’ money”.

The news comes as a document emerged confirming officials are looking to expand the trams down to Newhaven and Granton, west to Newbridge from Ingliston, and south to Little France, Newcraighall and Queen Margaret University.

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Edinburgh trams. Picture; Lesley Martin

The latest draft of the new Strategic Development Plan (SDP) – which sets out a vision for the longterm development of the Edinburgh region, and is drawn up by officials from Edinburgh and surrounding councils – lists the tram expansions as part of its “strategic projects 2018-2030”.

It states an extension of the existing line to Newhaven and Granton is “needed to support [the] significant scale of development at Leith and [the] waterfront”.

The long-awaited City Region Deal aims to inject up to £2 billion of public money into key infrastructure projects, with the potential to attract a further £5bn of private sector cash.

Supporters say the vast funding pot could be used to kick-start much-needed development, as well as pump extra investment into culture and tourism.

Edinburgh trams. Picture; Lesley Martin

Bosses hope to deliver the deal by the end of the calendar year – and it is understood it could even be finalised by early October.

Asked whether an extension of the trams would form part of the City Deal, Mr Kerr said: “Yes, it’s possible. We’re talking about various elements.

“If we’re opening up the east of the city, Leith and the waterfront for development, which increases land value and has economic benefit all the way through, there’s no doubt the tram extension is part of that consideration.

“The extent to which it is and the extent to which it’s part of the City Deal is part of the negotiation. We’re not at the stage where we say that we’re going to fund 30 metres of tram or 40m of tram.

“We’re just at the point where we see how best we can invest the £2bn. We’re negotiating on that.

“We’ve got to make best use of that £2bn. In the west that’s probably roads that open up that area for development. In the east it’s more likely to be light railway or tram, or some version of that.”

Experts said opening up the tram line to key areas in the north and south east of Edinburgh would boost investment, jobs, housing and infrastructure.

Professor Sean Smith, director of Edinburgh Napier’s Institute for Sustainable Construction, described the City Deal as a “game-changer”. He said an extension of the trams could do for parts of the Capital what the Borders Railway has done for the rural south of Scotland – ushering in fresh development, jobs and cash.

Reopened in September last year, the Waverley line has allowed the construction industry to build as many as 12,000 new homes by offering a vital transport link, believes Prof Smith.

He said: “I know people will go, ‘Oh jings, not a lot of money on the trams again’, but I think we would do it better this time. Lessons have been learned.

“It would potentially open up Leith. We need that investment in the infrastructure which then encourages [companies] to develop. It’s a key part of it.

“Ultimately, when we look at developing now, we look at what we call ‘places for people’. We are trying to create places where people want to live.

“There’s a chance certainly to help transform what they started to do several years ago with the waterfront, before the recession stopped it and the trams finished it off.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, an extension of the tram line to Little France and Newcraighall would feed into the massive development planned for the Capital’s south-east wedge.

The Evening News previously revealed how a rush of house-building in the area could see up to 6000 homes built across just five square miles.

Edinburgh’s soaring population is expected to overtake Glasgow’s in a matter of decades, requiring tens of thousands of houses to be built in the coming years. Officials estimate more than 25,000 extra homes are needed by 2026 – with many of them pegged for green belt land on the city’s outskirts.

The expansion would also link Edinburgh BioQuarter, a bustling hub of bioscience research facilities based near Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, with the city centre. It is understood both the BioQuarter and the Roslin Institute at Easter Bush – birthplace of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal – will play a big part in the upcoming City Deal, which aims to boost research and “advanced digital technology”.

But any moves to expand the tram system will likely prove controversial in a city still reeling from the chaos unleashed just a few years ago.

Initial plans for the network – which would have stretched down to Granton, west to Newbridge and south to Newcraighall – were hacked back due to cost, and the finished line was still far short of what was given the go-ahead.

The route down to Newhaven was eventually scrapped following a damaging legal battle and ballooning costs, angering Leithers who had suffered years of roadworks in preparation.

Keith Hales, former chair of the Leith Business Association, insisted spending the money on extending the trams would be a “waste”.

He said: “There’s so many other things Edinburgh needs. At the moment they don’t even have enough money to cut the grass in the parks.

“The bottom line is I simply don’t trust them to do it right. There needs to be investment to make Leith itself a destination.”

In December last year, city leaders voted to begin preparation works for bringing the trams down to Newhaven, but delayed making a final decision on whether to actually go ahead with the £162 million scheme until after the next election in 2017.

Edinburgh’s Tory party was the only council group to oppose the plan on principle.

Transport spokesman Nick Cook said: “Conservative councillors have consistently opposed the business case presented to council for extending the tram.

“The business case relied too heavily on assumption, would take too long to complete and offered the taxpayer poor value. The council simply cannot afford it.

“Were external funding for a tram extension to emerge – such as through the rumoured City Deal – this would, of course, be worthy of detailed consideration.

“However, there is no such thing as government money, only taxpayers’ money.”

He added: “I believe that a future tram extension of any description would require a far more 
robust, better-value business case, in addition to many other assurances, if it were to stand the chance of gaining support.”