Council boss accepts tram price report was “inaccurate”

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FORMER council chief executive Tom Aitchison has admitted he did not tell councillors about a new price increase for the tram scheme on the day they gave the go-ahead for signing the contract.

Construction company Bilfinger Berger had notified the council’s tram firm TIE of the increase from £508m to £512m the day before, but Mr Aitchison said nothing had been agreed and so the council meeting on May 1, 2008 was not informed. Councillors voted to note the “final price” of £508m and authorise Mr Aitchison to sign the contract.

Tom Aitchison.

Tom Aitchison.

Mr Aitchison said the price rise had come through a matter of hours before the meeting.

“TIE and their advisers and the council were urgently trying to find out was it a valid claim, could it be accepted in whole or in part. All that was still up in the ether. It was judged inappropriate to set hares running if there was perhaps a possibility of any further increase not being approved.”

And he said he had not withdrawn the report because there had not been an update to members on the project since December 2007.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for the report to be discussed and for officials to be questioned on it.”

Mr Aitchison said he had told council leader Jenny Dawe about the price rise.

Inquiry counsel Ewan Mackenzie said: “I have to suggest to you it was both inaccurate and potentially misleading for you to represent to members that £508m was the final price for the project when you knew a substantial price increase had been sought and remained unresolved.”

Mr Aitchison said: “I never ever sought to mislead elected members in all the time I worked in local government. I may have made a mistake in reporting but I certainly was trying very hard to ensure that elected members had as much information as possible.”

And he said he had reported the £512m figure, when it was confirmed, as quickly as possible, two weeks later. But when Mr Mackenzie put it to him again that his report on May 1 had been inaccurate and potentially misleading, he said: “I accept that.”

Mr Aitchison was also asked about the appointment of Willie Gallagher as chairman of TIE in June 2006 and then as executive chairman, combining the role of chair and chief executive, two months later. It was meant as an “interim” arrangement but lasted until he resigned November 2008.

Mr Mackenzie showed Mr Aitchison a copy of Mr Gallagher’s CV and asked about his experience for the role. “What had he built?”

Mr Aitchison said: “He hadn’t specifically built anything. The council were looking at the time for leadership skills. Clearly underneath Mr Gallagher were going to be a management structure with a programme director, a project director.”

Mr Aitchison agreed it was not good practice to have the same person as chair and chief executive because it was too great a concentration of power and it meant a lack of scrutiny.

But he said there were special circumstances which required a pragmatic approach.

He admitted the appointment had been made without the job being advertised and without open competition.

Mr Aitchison described how he Cllr Dawe were invited to a meeting with Finance Secretary John Swinney in November 2010. “I think he was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress and constant media and political turmoil.

“He said he had been meeting TIE on a reasonably regular basis but had increasingly lost faith in them and wanted to hear from the council where is the council’s thinking and what is the council going to do.

“I had discussed with Cllr Dawe the possibility of moving towards mediation. Mr Swinney didn’t say yea or nay to that. I hope he thought it was a reasonable response to the circumstances. He did go on to say should we require further assistance from Transport Scotland he was prepared to make that available.”

Mr Aitchison said looking back he and other senior officials probably did not have enough time, given their other responsibilities, to devote to the tram project.

He said: “If I had my time to do again, I certainly wouldn’t do it that way. I think it’s just impossible to expect council officers to be doing the day-to-day job, while at the same time being heavily involved in a project of that magnitude.”

And he said councils had lost a lot of their expertise. “Over the last 20 years, if you look at a department such as City Development, they lost a lot of their capacity, their engineering capacity, their technical capacity, and that just didn’t exist for a project of the scale of the tram project.”