John McLellan: Edinburgh’s tram scandal could happen again

Neil Renilson, photographed with a model tram in 2008, was a sceptic throughout. Picture: Julie Bull
Neil Renilson, photographed with a model tram in 2008, was a sceptic throughout. Picture: Julie Bull
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With officials described as “lying, conniving and arrogant”, the Edinburgh tram inquiry is getting to the heart of what made the project a civic embarrassment; an ever-changing cast of people spectacularly ill-equipped to run a multi-million-pound engineering project and who came to loathe being in the same room.

Richard Walker, managing director of Billfinger Berger (BB), didn’t pull his punches and neither did ex-Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) chair David Mackay, who essentially accused BB and the other contractors of trying to blackmail the council with the loaded revolver of delayed work on Princes Street. But for some real character assassination and a rollicking good read about the farce the whole thing became, the statement from ex-Lothian Buses chief Neil Renilson is hard to beat. Renilson was chief executive of the umbrella company, Transport Edinburgh, until the end of 2008 and was an ever-present in the critical early phases when key decisions were made.

A sceptic throughout, he saw it as his job to protect the city’s transport network as a whole, in effect the buses, and for his pains it seems he earned the suspicion of virtually everyone directly involved.

READ MORE: Claim tram works ‘took advantage’ of TIE team

“Anybody who did not show blind faith in what was being proposed was viewed as being negative and against the project, rather than being viewed as having, perhaps, something to contribute,” he wrote. “Some of the TIE people had a certain arrogance and an unshakeable faith in their own abilities … when it became blindingly obvious that things had gone badly wrong, they started the search for the guilty, followed by the punishment of the innocent.”

TIE was run by “incompetent people with faulty documentation” and when elections loomed “delays, overspends and problems were diligently suppressed from politicians and the media, sometimes for six or nine months”.

The first TIE chief executive, Michael Howell, was “an affable buffoon” but his successor Willie Gallagher was “way out of his depth and had been promoted to a position beyond his abilities”. Project director Ian Kendall was apparently described by the head of London Transport as “absolute poison” while for David Mackay “there was nothing more important . . . than his own importance”.

As the council gets ready to approve the £165m Granton completion project, his comments about the councillors should set alarm bells ringing.

“There was no perception amongst some of how complex and large the project was, and they did not give it the importance it needed or deserved,” he said. “They did not have the skills, knowledge or expertise to understand 90 per cent of what they were being presented with. There were some who genuinely tried, but many did not, and some for whom it was all just beyond them.”

Poor Gordon Mckenzie, the former transport convener, looked petrified when interviewed about the chaos and no current councillor has any more expertise than their predecessors 10 years ago and, of course, that includes me. Nor is it fair to expect local politicians to have the knowledge to delve independently into schemes of such technical complexity. We have been told history won’t repeat itself, that everything will be under control. Maybe it will be, but every councillor should read Renilson’s evidence and ask themselves “How will I know?”