The Transport Taliban are in charge in Edinburgh – John McLellan

Councillor Lesley Macinnes is laying down the law on the City Centre Transformation plan in true Bible-thumping fashion, writes John McLellan

Thursday, 26th September 2019, 6:00 am
Traffic congestion in Edinburgh.

The firebrand preacher/politician Rev Ian Paisley was regularly lampooned by the late Irish comedian Dave Allen, in particular one skit involving a sermon about the Day of Judgement. “And there will be a wailing and a g-nashing of teeth,” he bellowed from the pulpit, when up came a nervous voice from the congregation.

“Dr Paisley, Dr Paisley . . . but what about those of us without any teeth?” he inquired. Paisley/Allen stopped, thought for a moment, and drawing up all his blustering authority, pronounced, “Teeth will be provided.”

OK, so it loses something without Allen’s delivery, but I was reminded of the gag during an extraordinary end to last week’s debate at Edinburgh Council about the SNP-Labour administration’s City Centre Transformation project, in particular the furious summing-up from the city’s transport convener Lesley Macinnes.

The ideas in the 340-page report are unquestionably ambitious, a lot have merit and no-one is arguing for the status quo, but the project contains significant challenges for Lothian Buses, concerns which the company has aired both privately and officially.

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The company has to deliver an annual dividend of around £6m, to which the council administration has just added a demand for a further £7m in each of the next three years to pay for the tram completion. Now the transformation vision involves the break-up of its cross-city services, a demand to fund a free “hopper” bus service to ferry passengers around a ring of city centre stances, and a requirement to improve the engine standards of the entire fleet at a cost of nearly £100m.

The council has effectively said this is Lothian Buses’ problem, but Cllr Macinnes could not contain her rage at the suggestion that perhaps some idea of how this will work without wrecking the bus service would be welcome. Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and thumping her desk like a true Bible-basher for emphasis, she simply spat: “Solutions will be found.”

It didn’t quite reach the stroke-inducing apoplexy in the House of Commons yesterday, but it was something to behold the teeth-gnashing, enamel-flaking venom of her reaction to legitimate questions being raised by the opposition in a process clearly laid out in the council’s rules to give councillors not on the transport committee the chance to have a say.

On one level the self-assurance is to be admired, but it is built on a programme which has deliberately avoided the proper testing of public opinion and instead relies on the belief that the 3000 self-selecting responses to the council’s consultation process (78 per cent were supportive, she said) to show residents are right behind the administration.

We in the Conservative seats who are sceptical about the practicality of some proposals were, according to Cllr Macinnes “living on another planet”, and we should be ashamed of our “scaremongering tactics”. Whatever, Lesley.

She was appalled, outraged, insulted and any other terrible thing you could possibly be if someone dared to hold a different opinion to someone as obviously well-meaning as she. But despite conceding more details have still to emerge and it was little more than a roadmap, in the same breath she claimed it had all been fully costed. Even the most junior quantity surveyor knows you can’t fully cost a ten-year plan without full details.

This is the Transport Taliban in action; The Commandments have been delivered from Sinai so all further questions represent heresy and alternatives represent apostasy. Disbelief must be permanently suspended and we poor miserable sinners must have faith that this time an authority which has proved its inability to manage major projects time and time again is going to get it right.

Maybe it will, and at least Cllr Macinnes was honest enough to admit the plans will involve upheaval. Maybe four-fifths of residents are right behind them, as she claimed in the Evening News this week. So prove me wrong; ask residents if they support upheaval and a plan which has still to find practical solutions.