After Edinburgh's ruinous tram project, politicians must learn not to put their ego before value for money – John McLellan
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Walking across Haymarket as a tram glided past the new glass-clad offices towering over the still relatively new train station earlier this week, I mused about how much Edinburgh had changed in the 30 years since moving here. However, it is easy to forget how painful it has been to get to this point: the council forced to sell the Haymarket site to pay for historic equal pay claims, the planning battle against the soaring Tiger Developments hotel, and of course the scandalously mismanaged tram scheme.
It was therefore with wry amusement that I read former city council leader Donald Anderson’s take on the long-awaited Edinburgh tram inquiry report, that it should help us learn, as he put it, “what happens when the politics gets out of control”. Donald is a friend going back several years, and no one knows more about the disastrous execution of this project, given he led the council when the original plans were laid, and later advised the engineering companies in their long legal wrangles with the council and construction company.
He remains an enthusiastic supporter, and I know despaired as the project team dug themselves deeper into trouble, but whatever Lord Hardie’s report reveals when it eventually arrives ─ how apt that it awaits the printers in the digital age ─ the problem was not the politics, or politicians, getting out of control, but that they were never in control at all.
Had they been in control, of their faculties at least, they would have called a halt to such a ruinous exercise when more flexible and less costly alternatives were there to be had. They lost control when they convinced themselves the only way to get people out their cars was by light rail, so-called “modal shift”, and committed the city to a project in which the cheques needed to remain blank to deliver something, anything, for years of disruption.
“It’s not Holyrood on wheels,” said original chief executive Michael Howell, when that’s exactly what it was. “Think of the biggest number you think it will cost and double it,” said Dublin transport officials emerging from their own tram nightmare. Yet Edinburgh pressed on.
As problems mounted before it had barely begun, they hired a public relations crisis expert, Jack Irvine, who immediately predicted it would cost over £1bn. Not an engineer but he was spot on. Donald is correct that lessons can be learnt about how public authorities handle major projects, but politicians never learn when their ego, under the guise of investment in services, comes before value for money. Look at the east-west cycleway or HS2.
That’s precisely what happened with the three-mile Newhaven completion project, in which cost overruns were engineered into the £207m budget, and it was quietly forgotten the hardware and rolling stock had already been bought, so it could be presented as a success. Now there are still hundreds of snags to be repaired less than a month before the line is due to go live. All quite normal, we’re told.
“History will not record the name of the accountant,” said Sir David Steel as the price of the crazy Scottish Parliament building soared, and these times of high inflation provide cover for the next grandiose public scheme in which the taxpayers’ cheques are always blank.