Transport Scotland to bill city for tram rescue team

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A government agency is under fire after it emerged it will bill the city council for hundreds of thousands of pounds for mounting a “rescue” of the trams project.

Transport Scotland is to take a key role in management of the project in a bid to ensure it is completed by summer 2014 and within the latest £776 million budget.

Agency staff who have worked on successful projects such as the M74 extension – which the government says was opened ahead of time and within budget – are being drafted in to complement the council’s existing project team.

But the council will be expected to pay Transport Scotland for the cost of its staff.

Opposition politicians said the government’s move was too late and accused ministers of a “brass neck” in expecting the council to pay Transport Scotland staff costs.

A deadline had been set for midnight last night to conclude a new deal between the council and contractors on taking the trams to St Andrew Square, but a council team led by chief executive Sue Bruce worked through the night, alongside contractors, signing off thousands of documents before a final agreement was sealed around 8.30am.

The Scottish Government announced yesterday it would now pay the remaining £72m of its agreed £500m funding for the trams, which it withheld when it looked as if the route would only to Haymarket.

Ministers will have a power of veto on strategic decisions, but insisted responsibility remained with the council.

Transport Scotland director Ainslie McLaughlin will be on the new project board and four or five staff will be based alongside the council team.

Alex Neil, the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Secretary, said he hoped the move would mark “a new beginning” for the tram project.

He said: “We are going to take a very proactive approach to ensure the remainder of this project goes according to plan.”

City Labour transport spokeswoman Lesley Hinds said: “When the Scottish Government agreed to pay the £500m, they took Transport Scotland off the project management board and for four-and-a-half years they have paid out millions of taxpayers’ money without scrutinising how it was spent.

“At long last the government is now taking some responsibility. It’s a bit of brass neck – after four-and-a-half years of not taking responsibility, they are now going to charge Edinburgh council taxpayers for it.”

Edinburgh’s Tory group leader Jeremy Balfour said: “They opted out for all these years and suddenly, just when things looks as if they might have resolved themselves, they are going to take all the credit.”

He welcomed the Transport Scotland involvement, but said he was concerned about ministers having a power of veto over decisions made at a local level.

He also questioned why the council should pay for Transport Scotland staff.

He said: “This just means another cost for the trams.”

Mr Neil defended the government’s hands-off approach to the project since 2007, saying Audit Scotland had given it a clean bill of health and reported there was enough expertise. He said it would have been inappropriate to intervene later due to the legal dispute between the council and contractors.

City leader Jenny Dawe said the council and Transport Scotland had agreed a closer relationship would be “beneficial”.

Ms Bruce said: “We are putting in place new arrangements to ensure there is the best possible governance and operational oversight. That will be complemented by the technical, project management expertise and experience that Transport Scotland offers.”