Edinburgh Tram Inquiry's critics are wrong, its report may be late but it will be far from 'meaningless' – Donald Anderson
“Nobody cares”, “it’s meaningless” and “another waste of money”. Those are just a few of the responses I have heard from friends and colleagues about the imminent publication of the long-awaited inquiry into Britain’s longest-running and costly contractual dispute. It brought ridicule on the city and (understandably) caused huge anger amongst city residents.
So as somebody involved in the initial work on the tram project, you might expect me to agree with people who think it should all just be forgotten about and that we should just move on for a quieter life. Alas, I just can’t see it that way. There is no doubt that the inquiry is late and the irony of a late inquiry about a project that was delivered very late will not be lost on anyone.
I still think we should study the report and its findings with care. We live in an age of populist politics where politicians often get elected on the back of cheap and easy three-word slogans. The UK Government is now constantly grappling with the costs of just one such slogan. Its attempts to ‘take back control’ have been running for almost as long as the tram project and I suspect will run for way, way longer.
So, forgive me if I choose to pore over the findings with the same curiosity and interest as if it had taken just six months. Will I agree with it all? Almost certainly not, but one of the country’s leading legal brains has studied the issues in depth and, whatever the findings, they should be of interest to public policymakers and politicians in equal measure.
The immediate benefits of the inquiry will not relate to the tram project itself. The phase to Leith has been delivered with commendable efficiency. The team working on that line was smart enough not to wait for the inquiry and sat in on the evidence sessions. We should be thankful they did, as the major lessons were undoubtedly learned, and the city and Leith will benefit from their wisdom.
The lessons go much wider than the tram project. In recent years, we have seen politics intervene more often on major and very expensive projects. I think dualling the A9 is a fantastic boost for Scotland. It basically reduces the size of the country, with better links for rural communities to our major economic hubs of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and it saves lives. But it is a long-term project of intense complexity and, of course, has now become a political football. Ferguson Marine and ferry delays have been another complicated issue. Another political football with no easy answers.
I was lucky enough to be Edinburgh’s council leader long ago. It was the equivalent of servicing a machine with millions of moving parts. There is no part of government or public administration that is easy or simple. Only fools think it is.
The Tram Inquiry will shine light on the decision-making processes of Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government, and the private sector. We should study its report to learn what went wrong on trams, but more importantly to learn wider lessons about how public bodies and politicians handle major projects, and what happens when the politics gets out of control. Perhaps then it can be worthwhile.