Public inquiry into troubled Edinburgh tram project has now lasted longer than the building of line itself

It’s six years since Alex Salmond appointed former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie to head the investigation

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 7:30 am

THE public inquiry into Edinburgh’s troubled tram project has now lasted longer than the contractors took to build the line itself.

It’s six years since Alex Salmond appointed former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie to head the investigation into what went wrong with the Capital’s biggest infrastructure project for generations after costs soared and delays lengthened.

The then First Minister promised the inquiry would be “swift and thorough”.

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An Edinburgh tram

But two years after public hearings concluded, it has still not published its report.

And that means the inquiry has now spent longer looking at the problems which blighted the project than it took from the start of construction work on the main contract in June 2008 to the opening of the line on May 31, 2014.

Council leader Adam McVey claimed the extension to Newhaven – due for completion in 2023 – could now be up and running before Lord Hardie’s report appeared.

He said: “It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we have passengers travelling on the tram extension before the inquiry reports.”

The inquiry team has given no indication of when the report might be expected. Any individual or organisation who is to be singled out for criticism may need to be sent a letter warning them of the comments.

One insider said: “Andrew Hardie is one of the smartest legal brains in Scotland so he will get to the nub of the issues. If folk have done things wrong, I don’t think he’ll miss them.

“The issue with the tram project isn’t that things went wrong – it’s that hardly anything went right.

“You can see with things like the Queensferry Crossing and the Sick Kids that major projects have problems because they’re major projects – they’re big and complicated. What made the tram different was just the scale and the number of things that went wrong.”

Opponents said the extension to Newhaven should not have proceeded before the inquiry’s recommendations were known, but the council claimed lessons had been learned already.

Cllr McVey said: “While we want the conclusions and we want to see if there’s anything else to be taken on board, this does just illustrate how much time and progress we would have lost if we had followed the advice of the nay-sayers.

“While there will be takeaways from the inquiry the current tram team have already done a brilliant job in not doing what the previous tram project did.”

The plan to bring trams back to the Capital was going to cost £375m when the Scottish Government announced funding in 2003 – and they were going to be running by 2009.

But the cost quickly escalated and finally reached £776m, which can be rounded up to £1 billion when interest payments are added, and the completion date kept being delayed.

The inquiry heard criticism of the way the contract had been drawn up, difficult relations between the contractors and the council’s tram firm TIE and repeated disputes over who was liable for extra costs.

Cllr McVey said the contract for the tram extension and the approach to construction were both standard so everyone understood their responsibilities. “There has also been an incredible amount of work to build a one-team mentality across everyone working on the project, which is why most of them are based in the same location in Bonnington.”

Lord Hardie and his team were said to have sifted through more than six million documents before the public hearings started in September 2017. Cabinet ministers, council leaders, senior civil servants, top council officials and company chief executives were all grilled during 18 weeks of evidence taking, which ended in May 2018.

Tory group leader Iain Whyte said the inquiry’s work had already dragged on beyond the time when its findings would be of any benefit to the council in building the extension, though he said recommendations might still be of use for other infrastructure projects.

He said: “Most people’s biggest concerns about it taking so long to get the report will be the cost that is being racked up – I know most of that was on the public hearings, but it does seem to have taken a long time since then for the report to be produced.”

The latest figure for the cost of the inquiry was £10.56m with a further £200,000 budgeted for the year to April 2021.

Cllr Whyte said: “I’m sure there are lots of complex legal issues but I would certainly hope Lord Hardie would be able to issue a report soon.”

Former council leader Donald Anderson, one of those who appeared at the inquiry, said he was surprised the report had not appeared yet given the length of time which has passed.

“I assume there are good reasons for such a lengthy delay,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of insight and excellent information about how to handle major projects as a result of this and a lot of lessons that could be learned. I would just like to have seen it a bit quicker.”

A spokeswoman for the inquiry said: “The findings of the Inquiry into why the Edinburgh Trams project incurred delays, cost more than originally budgeted and delivered significantly less than planned will be made available at the earliest opportunity.

“Lord Hardie’s remit is to conduct a robust inquiry and it will take as long as is necessary to get the answers required to fulfil the terms of reference.

“We continue to make good progress, including managing more than three million documents on the Inquiry’s evidence database for handover to National Records of Scotland.

“A relevant set is also being prepared to be made available on the Inquiry’s website to accompany the published report at the appropriate time.”