Edinburgh Tram Inquiry's verdict is hanging over my head, but its findings should be vital to improving decision-making and staving off cheap populism – Donald Anderson

There are lots of people who are understandably critical of both the time and cost of Edinburgh’s Tram Inquiry.
The Tram Inquiry is likely to find it was worthwhile creating the serviceThe Tram Inquiry is likely to find it was worthwhile creating the service
The Tram Inquiry is likely to find it was worthwhile creating the service

The facts are that it has taken longer than any similar inquiry and longer than one that isn’t remotely similar: the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war. Many are now questioning its relevance and whether it has been worthwhile.

I fully understand the concerns. The inquiry has been hanging over my head (as I was council leader when the decision to commission the trams was taken) just as it has all of those who were involved in the project. However, I do think it would be wrong to downgrade or dismiss the findings, simply because of the time taken.

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It will deliver a verdict on many aspects of the way that public bodies operate, work with the private sector, and how they take important decisions. That there were huge mistakes with the tram project will be an unavoidable conclusion. However I do also think that it will conclude the decision to proceed with trams was justifiable. Indeed, they have been such a success on the truncated route which was delivered that the Scottish Government is set to back proposals to create an extension.

The decision to link Leith and north Edinburgh to the key employment hubs in the city centre, Edinburgh Park and Edinburgh Airport was critical to the decision to choose a northern route. In part, that decision was informed at the time by Councillor Iain Whyte’s analysis of trams in Croydon, which had delivered huge success in regeneration.

Since then, investment has poured into the tram corridor and key investments like the £1 billion St James Quarter were delivered in the knowledge that they would be on the tram route. The total investment which has been delivered is probably well over £2 billion already, and Leith Walk and Leith have been transformed by one of Scotland’s most successful regeneration initiatives.

The inquiry will cover all these issues and more. It will also analyse in detail how decisions were taken. Did officers of the tram company give council officers and elected members honest and accurate assessments of the key information they needed to make critical decisions about the project? Did officers fully and honestly inform elected members of the facts and did elected members properly exercise their role to scrutinise the information available to them?

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Scotland and the UK need to invest more time in raising the quality of political decision-making. Politics, across all parties, has been marred by the rise of populism. Brexit has shown the huge cost of this style of politics on our economy and quality of life. We need to make better decisions, and we need to expose cheap populism at all levels of decision-making.

So, whilst many people will take the view that the Tram Inquiry has taken ‘too long’, or that the lessons have ‘already been learned’, I do think the report should be read avidly by those involved in making judgements about how to spend public funds. We need politicians and officials who are well equipped to deliver large-scale projects. There will always be more that can be learned and if that can be achieved with the Tram Inquiry report, the exercise will be worthwhile.

Donald Anderson is a former Edinburgh Council leader