John McLellan: City Deal is ambition not real commitment

Artist's impressions of proposed changes to Sherrifhall Roundabout
Artist's impressions of proposed changes to Sherrifhall Roundabout
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Far be it for me to poo-poo a package of investment worth £1.1bn for the Edinburgh region, but I’m not going to get carried away with last week’s City Deal announcement just yet.

Yes, some of the elements look exciting if they come off, in particular the technology package worth a total of around £600m which, among other things, is set to create five research and development centres built around existing expertise.

But there is a long, long way to go before any of it becomes reality and we can only hope lessons have been learnt from false dawns like Livingston’s Project Alba in 1997, which sucked millions of public investment into a failed bid to create a global technology innovation hub. The leading roles of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt Universities, with their strong track record of delivery, will be key.

There is no question the City Deal’s other main focus on housing is very badly needed if a growing workforce is to have somewhere decent to live and money left over to spend, although perish the thought the proposed regional housing company run by Edinburgh Council becomes an old-fashioned council housing department.

The proposal to build 5000 new homes at Winchburgh will have huge implications for transport, even though the main Edinburgh-Glasgow railway runs through the town and £150m has been earmarked to fund the roads, schools and health facilities needed for an additional 12,000 people.

Transport was expected to be one of the bigger ticket items, but despite some grandiose language it’s hardly a game-changer and I find myself in the unusual position of having some sympathy with the Greens about the inclusion of work on the Sheriffhall Roundabout.

Of course, the Greens would rather it wasn’t happening at all while I’ve been calling for an upgrade for longer than I care to remember, but we can both agree that such long-awaited trunk road improvements should come from the Scottish Government’s transport budget and not masquerade as a visionary investment.

A bypass through-route at Sheriffhall is as badly needed as it was at Gogar 25 years ago but how this, £20m of improvements in West Edinburgh and a commitment to “work collaboratively” on a “transport appraisal working group” is going to deliver the City Deal’s promised “world class transport infrastructure” is anybody’s guess - £20m would barely get the Granton Spur tram line past Ravelston Dykes, which is presumably one of the reasons the Scottish Government rejected inclusion of the tram route completion to Newhaven.

There has been a suspicion that City Deals have simply been a way of paying for unfunded pet projects which have been gathering dust on council shelves, and as far as Sherrifhall is concerned it looks more like a way for Transport Scotland to get it off its books.

Even so, the whole Deal comes with more strings than the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (who get a help with funding their new home on St Andrew Square) and each project has still to have a final business case approved.

Further, a detailed proposal with full implementation, governance, monitoring and evaluation plans, and a communications strategy, has still to be developed.

So after more than two years of talking, what we got last week are ambitions, not commitments at all.