Council says lessons learned on trams as public hearings end

Public hearings for the Edinburgh trams inquiry have now been finished. Picture: Neil Hanna
Public hearings for the Edinburgh trams inquiry have now been finished. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IT HAS taken 18 weeks of evidence and seen Cabinet ministers, company chief executives, council bosses and leading experts quizzed in the hot seat.

Now the Edinburgh trams inquiry has concluded its public hearings and the chairman, former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie, will consider his findings.

His report to be published “in due course” will deliver the definitive verdict on what went wrong with the tram project, why it was completed three years late and at twice the price for just half the route.

But a lawyer for the city council, summing up at yesterday’s final public session, told the inquiry lessons had already been learned from the project and that plans to extend the tram route to Newhaven represented a chance to show past problems had been addressed.

Roy Martin QC, for the council, said: “The council has already learned important lessons from the tram project and awaits the findings of the inquiry in order to consider what further lessons can be taken on board for future projects.”

A decision on whether to go ahead with a proposed £165 million extension of the tram route down Leith Walk and on to Newhaven is due to be made towards the end of this year.

Mr Martin said: “Although the lessons learned by the council will be applicable to all projects which it undertakes in the future, the Leith and Newhaven tram project is clearly an opportunity for council to demonstrate that past issues have been recognised and addressed.”

He said lessons learned included a need for independent scrutiny of initial options and business case, early detailed consultation with all those likely to be affected and robust project governance with clear roles and responsibilities from the start. A proper understanding of the position on risks and the availability of relevant expertise are other examples.

Mr Martin said: “The council is aware of how the tram project affected local citizens and businesses. Lessons have been learned in relation to minimising traffic and other disruption.”

He argued it was the terms of the contract which were the principal cause of the delays and cost increases because they left the council and its tram firm TIE with the bill for changes made as the project progressed.

Mr Martin said the council had relied on advice from lawyers DLA Piper on the contract. “But the advice was not complete and it was not accurate,” he said.

In his summing up, Roddy Dunlop QC, for DLA Piper, claimed evidence at the inquiry had shown the contract as signed was the only deal on offer. “No matter how much DLA advised of the risks inherent in it, no matter how much they had railed against those, [the consortium] were not going to assume any more of those risks than they already had,” he said.

Mr Dunlop said TIE could have refused to sign, but with £136m already spent and residents already suffering the disruption of utility diversion work, shelving the project in the middle of 2008 would have been a failure.

“Imagine it had been shelved,” he said. “Imagine that what Edinburgh was left with at the end of 2008 was a few holes in the road and a £136m hole in its budget. That really would have warranted the villagers’ gathering their torches and their pitchforks.”

Mr Dunlop also referred to DLA lawyer Andrew Fitchie, who was given a fierce grilling at the inquiry. The QC said: “It’s very easy to be critical of Mr Fitchie. Lawyer bashing is very much in vogue these days, but this was a man doing the best he could in a difficult situation that was not of his making. How is it that he caused the delay? How is it that he increased the cost? Nothing he could have done would have made the slightest difference to what later occurred.

“The things [DLA] are criticised for not doing would not have avoided the delays or the added costs.”

Mr Dunlop also argued the project should not be viewed as a failure. He said: “The evidence taken as a whole shows Edinburgh has been left with a valuable asset, hence, no doubt, why the line is to be extended.”

The inquiry also heard from Jonathan Barne QC, for Scottish ministers, who argued the 2007 decision by the then Finance Secretary John Swinney to remove Transport Scotland from active involvement in the project had made no difference to the outcome.

He noted the SNP had come to power in 2007 on a manifesto promising to use the funds intended for the tram project and the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link for “other national priorities”. But MSPs had voted to continue with the trams and Mr Swinney had agreed to pay the £500m already allocated, but no more.

Mr Barne said Transport Scotland’s withdrawal was to make sure clarity of roles between those delivering project and those funding it.

And he told the inquiry: “Perhaps the most telling fact is that at the time, not a single person or organisation involved in the project objected or complained about the decision.”

He rejected suggestions the move had deprived the project of a source of expertise, saying: “This was always the council’s project to deliver and the council had decided to deliver the project through TIE and TIE could recruit whatever private sector expertise it required.”

Mr Barne added that Transport Scotland had no in-house expertise on light rail.

Although the public hearings have ended, Lord Hardie warned it was possible further sessions may be required because DLA had recently discovered more documents. Bilfinger has mounted a legal bid to stop other documents being made public. Closing the hearing, Lord Hardie said: “The inquiry will have to reflect upon all of the evidence that we have received.”