Tram inquiry: Council ‘shouldn’t have led such a complex project’

Gordon Mackenzie was transport convener from June 2009 to May 2012
Gordon Mackenzie was transport convener from June 2009 to May 2012
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A national transport agency with the backing of the Scottish Government – rather than the council – would have been better placed to take forward the Capital’s tram project, it has been claimed.

Former Liberal Democrat councillor Gordon Mackenzie told the tram inquiry he did not think councils should lead such complex projects as it created “too many opportunities for political division”.

Mr Mackenzie, who was transport convener from June 2009 to May 2012, also said councillors lacked the technical expertise to make decisions on such a complicated project.

He was giving evidence as the inquiry into the troubled works, chaired by Lord Hardie, moves through its ninth week of public hearings.

Mr Mackenzie, now a social work manager, was asked about comments in his written submission on who should be charged with leading such a scheme.

He states in the document: “I do not think that CEC should have been the body, through TIE, to have taken the project forward.

“I think that it should have been a national transport agency that did so, backed by the Scottish Government, and subject to separate legal advice.”

Later he adds: “I do not think that a political body, such as a council, should take these types of projects forward; it creates too many opportunities for division and divulging information which may disadvantage the public purse.”

Asked by inquiry counsel Jonathan Lake QC to elaborate, Mr Mackenzie said it was clear the council would not be delivering several such projects and therefore could not offer potential contractors a “menu of contracts”.

He told the inquiry: “I felt that the time that the

contractor was taking was excessive in the way it was taking forward the claims-based approach. A bigger organisation that maybe the contractor was interested in getting other contracts from ... the power relationship between them and the contractors would have been different.

“The council was small compared to the Scottish Government and I think size matters in these situations.”

Mr Mackenzie, who was first elected as a councillor in May 2003, also described the difficult task faced by councillors trying to consider the intricacies of such a complex project.

In his statement, he said they relied “very heavily” on the advice of both council officers and officials at tram firm TIE, the arm’s length company established to deliver the project.

He adds: “Given what I now know about tram projects, I do not think that there is any substitute for the experience and skills that come from working in an environment with large-scale, complex, projects.

“I do not think, particularly in relation to my position on the TEL Board and the TPB [Tram Project Board], there could have been any training that would have helped substantially improve that position.”

The Capital’s beleaguered tram project was eventually delivered at a cost of around £776 million, five years late and on a truncated route.

Mr Mackenzie said that as the project unravelled it gave the council’s different parties a “really good opportunity” to make play of the situation for political ends.

He told the inquiry: “If you looked at the political context of this, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, voted to take this project forward.

“As it became more unpopular, Labour and the Conservatives wanted to distance themselves from a project that was going really badly wrong.

“Equally, the SNP had taken a view that they were against the tram for whatever reasons that they gave. And they were not shy about hammering that point home at every opportunity.”

However, Mr Mackenzie said he only felt political divisions started to impact on the project’s implementation later, when a decision was being made about whether to stop the line at Haymarket or St Andrew Square.

He said that until this point the parties supporting trams had been able to broker deals.