Edinburgh tram inquiry: Lord Hardie's report is no whitewash; inquiry held powerful people to account

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Edinburgh Council says it learned lessons for the Trams to Newhaven project, but with more extensions planned Lord Hardie’s report could have further valuable inisghts

It'll never make a best-seller. The 959 pages of Lord Hardie's report on the tram inquiry are doubtless being pored over by lawyers and some of those most intimately involved in the saga, but it's hardly something to curl up with as the nights start to draw in.

Nevertheless, Lord Hardie's long-awaited report has valuable things to say and hopefully they will be listened to. Clearly there are serious questions to ask about both the time it took – it's nine years since the inquiry was appointed and more than five years since the public hearings concluded - and the staggering cost - £13 million, more than the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

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But the decision to order an inquiry into a project that had gone so badly wrong was right. It meant that powerful people, top public officials and senior executives of private contractors – people not accustomed to detailed public scrutiny – were held to account for their actions.

The Edinburgh tram inquiry report comes five years after the public hearings finished.The Edinburgh tram inquiry report comes five years after the public hearings finished.
The Edinburgh tram inquiry report comes five years after the public hearings finished.

And it should not be forgotten just how disruptive the tram project was – Princes Street closed for months on end, Leith Walk dug up and businesses forced to close – and the damage it did to Edinburgh's reputation at the time, making the Capital the butt of endless jokes. That's not something just to shrug off and hope it won't happen again. It was right to have a thorough investigation of why things did not go as they should have.

Lord Hardie's conclusions may in many cases be unsurprising – that the council's tram firm TIE was guilty of mismanagement, that the council failed to monitor the project adequately and that the Scottish Government should not have withdrawn Transport Scotland's involvement.

But no-one is accusing him of a whitewash. He has some stern criticism for key figures, including former Deputy First Minister John Swinney and senior council officials. And his recommendations include specific suggestions for improving how future projects are organised, as well as possible legislation to stop individuals or organisations knowingly misleading councllors.

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Most people in Edinburgh are probably happy to put the troubles of the tram project behind them and enjoy using the service - and the recently-opened extension to Newhaven. The council says even without Lord Hardie's report, it learned lessons from the inquiry for the Newhaven project because it had people listening to the evidence as it was given.

Nevertheless, with ambitions for further extensions of the route, starting with trams from Granton through the city centre to the Royal Infirmary and onto Dalkeith, there may well be other useful lessons contained in those 959 pages.