Decision on Trams four years too late and at an astronomical cost to Edinburgh tax payers.

Finally the Scottish Government have announced that they will play a meaningful part in sorting out the mess that is Edinburgh’s tram project.

I agree with the assessment of Iain Gray MSP Scottish Labour’s leader that “After four wasted years, Alex Salmond has been forced to get involved. This is a flagship project in Scotland’s capital and it is a disgrace that the SNP government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into sorting out a shambles of their own making. They have let Edinburgh down badly.”

It emerged at the Council’s Parliamentarian Briefing on Monday the Council was about to sign the deal to take the trams to St Andrews Square without confirmation from the Scottish Government would pay the City Council the final instalment of the £72m grant which is outstanding.

Over the last few weeks the issue of the trams in Edinburgh has come to a head as the decision was made to take the line to Haymarket then overturned in favour of St Andrew’s Square.

In the first vote on August 25th my Labour colleagues on the Council argued for what they saw as the lowest risk option based on the available information – to develop the line to Haymarket.   They had been informed by council officials that it was possible to do this within the existing contract for the project and that there was a confirmed costing for a turn back option at Haymarket.  As with previous costings from the Council this certainty dissolved the minute the proposal was passed. 

Moreover following the decision, the Scottish Government announced it would withhold the funding it had committed to the project and a special meeting of the Council was organised for Friday September 2nd.  In the time between the first decision being made on August 25th and Councillors being informed of the second meeting on August 29th, £30 million was added to the Haymarket option.

Serious questions remain to be answered as to why these figures changed so dramatically in such a short time and the decision was taken to once again proceed with the line to St Andrew’s Square, an option that will require the Council to take on a £231 million loan.

However, I remain concerned that although the Council has now approved the project to St Andrew’s Square that there is still no clarity on costs and still no certainty on timing.   When I asked on Monday whether there was now a guarantee from the Scottish Government that the final instalment of the £500m grant would be paid, the answer was no, but we’re hoping it will be.  When I asked about the issue of whether there was clarity on concessionary fares it emerged that the Scottish Government hadn’t confirmed this either.   So I welcome the commitment on the final payment of grant but we now need a positive response on concessionary fares too.    

Today’s announcement is that the SNP government has decided to bring back a team of expert advisers from Transport Scotland to fulfil key roles in overseeing the completion of the Edinburgh trams project.   As Andrew Burns the Labour Leader on Edinburgh City Council has observed however, taking Transport Scotland off the project board in the first place was a grave error of judgement that has cost Edinburgh taxpayers dear.

We now urgently need an inquiry into how the project has spun so wildly out of control.  Lessons need to be learnt for the future. 

Over the last few years I believe that the SNP/Lib Dem administration has failed to take responsibility for the management of the project.  People are angry and the city’s reputation has been damaged.

In 2007 the Parliament backed the City of Edinburgh Council and voted for the tram project to proceed.  In doing so, the Parliament were entrusting the SNP/Lib Dem council with the implementation of the project.

Following this vote in Parliament, the SNP Government took what I believe was the wrong decision, removing Transport Scotland, the Government body charged with delivering large transport infrastructure projects, from the management board delivering trams.  This decision effectively ensured that there was no Government oversight of the project.

The day after the Scottish Parliament vote, the Council considered emergency motions and voted 44 to 12 in favour of reaffirming commitment to the project rather than scrapping it. 

As part of the Council’s ruling administration, the SNP should have accepted the decision and focussed on making sure that the project was managed properly. Instead, they have spent the years since criticising and undermining the project.

Therefore, despite Audit Scotland giving the trams a clean bill of health in June 2007, the project has been allowed to collapse into chaos.

In other cities where trams have been built the initial line has usually been followed by a series of extensions to create a network that supplements bus routes.  The mismanagement of the Edinburgh project and the financial implications of that process has damaged the prospect of extending the network to Granton and the Royal Infirmary as originally planned.

At this week’s Council briefing I also asked about the issue of guarantees by the contractors on the quality of the works carried out.   The tracks on Princes Street will have to be re-laid and I’m concerned that full account has been taken of the potential of extreme weather conditions we might experience in the future.   During the last two winters we’ve seen temperatures drop well below normal levels for weeks and this week’s wind speeds played havoc with the overhead cables for electrified railway lines.  

Although questions still need to be asked about the detailed implementation of the project I will be urging all parties on the Council and in the Scottish Government to pull together on the project for the good of the reputation of the city.