Spaces for People: Edinburgh's Covid road measures given 'red' rating - 'significant improvement required'

Edinburgh's controversial Spaces for People programme was ill-prepared and not properly overseen and it is not clear how the cost of reversing the measures or making them permanent will be met, according to an internal audit report.

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The Covid-inspired scheme of road closures, pavement widening and cycle lanes, designed to help people maintain physical distance while walking and cycling, has been given a “red” rating by the auditors, meaning "significant improvement required".

The report said the specific measures were based on suggestions from "a relatively small group of officers and external local community stakeholders" and most were initially prioritised by six project team members “with limited justification available to support prioritisation outcomes”. Priorities were then reviews, but the report said final prioritisation decisions were based “mainly on the professional knowledge and judgment of two project team members”.

Spaces for People measures sparked controversy across the city

And it said where public feedback was incorporated into projects, no audit trail was available to confirm that this was completed.

The report also said there was “limited evidence of validation” by the project team of a financial spreadsheet designed by external consultants to cost the initiatives, determine stock levels required and select suppliers, in order to confirm its completeness and accuracy prior to use.

And with Covid restrictions winding down, the report warned: "There is currently no clear strategy for determining the potential exit costs associated with reversing individual projects, or transitioning them into permanent solutions, and it is currently unclear how any significant exit costs will be funded.”

The auditors said no business case was developed for the programme, but that seemed reasonable given tight implementation timeframes.

But they said decisions of board and project team meetings were not consistently recorded and said there was no monitoring to ensure works were completed on schedule and no assessments to confirm expected benefits had been realised.

And the report highlighted risks that proposals were “not appropriately prioritised for approval; and the rationale supporting decisions [was] not recorded” and that “public perception that feedback provided through the Commonplace survey was not considered in relation to ongoing schemes”.

Labour backbench councillor Scott Arthur said the report was damning. “It does, however, explain why the Spaces for People Programme has been so controversial in Edinburgh. Many of the points identified by the auditor have been raised by the public many times. Whether people love Spaces for People or hate it, there can be no doubt that this Internal Audit judgment could have been avoided if residents were listened to.”

And Conservative councillor Jason Rust said: "The reported findings are extremely concerning, but unfortunately not a surprise to those of us who have been questioning the council's process in relation to its Spaces for People programme over the past year or so.

"There appears to be significant process failings and weaknesses around governance and a lack of clarity around the funding for removal of individual schemes.

"While it may be understandable that no business case was developed given the perceived emergency situation, the alleged lack of recording or documenting of information or consistency is worrying and the lack of risk management in the process generally.

"Schemes do not appear to have been checked on implementation against what was intended and the report highlights some serious issues with the council's approach."

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