John McLellan: We must roll with referendum vote

Extending the tram system from the city centre to Leith could prove lucrative. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Extending the tram system from the city centre to Leith could prove lucrative. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Those who thought Scotland’s constitutional future had been settled by last week’s referendum result will have realised by now that the Fat Independence Lady is a long way off singing.

So, too, Edinburgh City Council leader Andrew Burns’ hope that publishing the tram project’s final financial report would lay that issue to rest is likely to be forlorn.

It has long been accepted that interest charges would leave barely enough for a day ticket from £1 billion to pay for Edinburgh’s tram line, and with council officials now free to speak in the forthcoming inquiry there is a lot more to run in this story, too.

But unlike the constitution, the issues thrown up by a tram inquiry will be largely historic. Lessons, it will be claimed, have already been learnt and it will never happen again, we will be assured.

Officials will point to the efficient construction programme once reality sank in and the resolution of the contractual impasse as evidence.

Those responsible for the darkest hours will all have moved on and I doubt very much if anything will be uncovered which will result in prosecution. So no resignations, no charges, no punishments, just a lot of head-shaking and legal bills.

But we will be years away from the cost becoming a historical footnote when so few local people gain much benefit from it, so finding a way to broaden the benefit should remain a priority.

Cash is obviously the first concern, but for all aspects of city development last week’s No vote means that investment taps which had been tightened can now be fully opened. While constitutional uncertainty has far from disappeared, it now centres on the development of devolution, not on the much more far-reaching implications of independence.

In particular, doubts about currency and the economic landscape were impacting on investment decisions, and now that’s out of the way for the next five years at the very least there is nothing to hold back projects like the long-awaited redevelopment of the St James Centre, a plan based on a presumption there would be a No vote.

Crucially for the tram to Leith, the St James developer, Henderson Global, has not ruled out making a contribution.

Transforming the east end of Princes Street should be a spur to completing the Leith link, even if it does mean an extra £80-£90 million on the bill. But bringing the system up to 12 miles with 23 stops would still be in line with costs of similar projects and be far more useful to a lot more people.

We should be indebted, if that’s the right word, to Evening News commentator Ed Havens, who brought a sense of scale to the story this week with a web post which compared the cost with that of three similar American projects in Arizona, Minneapolis and Baltimore.

I checked out Ed’s numbers and, sure enough, Arizona’s new Phoenix Metro line, which links the suburb of Mesa and the university district of Tempe with the city centre via the hub Sky Harbor airport, cost around £850m for a 20-mile route. It is correct that the new urban sprawl of Phoenix has none of the pitfalls of digging up historic streets, so the costs do stand comparison.

What doesn’t match up is that, unlike our line, the route cuts through densely populated areas with the massive Arizona State University (62,000 undergraduates and a football stadium bigger than Murrayfield) at its heart.

In Minneapolis, the 16-mile Southwest Corridor light rail line has been wracked with all-too familiar rows over soaring cost, and only last year the estimated bill shot up 33 per cent to around $1.7bn, or £1bn.

One of the project chiefs was quite blunt in an interview with the local paper when he said: “Designing and building rail . . . is pricey. It just comes with the territory.” But again at least the line goes through areas of high population density in a conurbation of not far short of four million people.

Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line is expected to come in at a whopping £1.7bn, largely because five miles of it is underground, helping to serve a regional population of about 2.7m.

Dwarfing them all is London’s £15bn Crossrail project, a 73-mile route slicing through central London to link Reading with darkest Essex and stop-offs at Heathrow and Paddington along the way. With 26 miles underground it’s no surprise it will have taken nine years to complete when it finally opens for business in 2018.

And with five Crossrail miles costing £1bn, maybe Edinburgh’s bill doesn’t seem quite so steep after all. Only time will tell if it’s been worth it, but 1.5m passengers in the first 100 days isn’t a bad start.

The problem remains political. After all we’ve been through, who is going to be brave enough to push forward with the project if there is a price to pay at the ballot box.

But, in fact, the political stars are in alignment for progress. The referendum is out the way so locally at least normal politics can return. With Labour in coalition with the SNP there is no political disadvantage for either in seeking a sensible way forward.

Having been in the driving seat throughout the crisis years, the Lib Dems are hardly going to benefit.

Other issues will dominate next year’s Westminster elections, there is nearly two years to go before the next Scottish Parliamentary elections and three before the next council vote, so the way should be clear for fast action now.

As I have argued before, the rolling stock and hardware has been bought and paid for, much of the groundwork along Leith Walk has already been done. So with the same sense of urgency that broke the stalemate, there is every chance that by 2017 the parties will be seeking to claim electoral advantage from completion to Leith, not obstruction.

Caltongate under way

One development not hanging about is Caltongate, now dubbed New Waverley.

Demolition is now underway and building work on the £150m development should start before the end of the year.

And no time was wasted on completing the sale of the Double Trees Hotel, formerly the Point on Bread Street.

With work underway at Haymarket, the way now clear for Caltongate, Craighouse and St James, and the tram crisis now behind us, Edinburgh should be in position to make significant strides in the next few years.

As I argued two weeks ago, significant physical as well as organisational change will be needed at Holyrood to make the parliament fit for the new challenges it will face as a properly empowered institution.

All of these aspects combined, we could be on the cusp of some truly dynamic years for the Capital.