The Tram Saga Continues

Kaitlin Dryburgh

The importance of keeping an eye on the public purse has been the message from this week’s tram inquiry findings.

Whether that should be aimed at the construction of the trams or the inquiry, who knows?

Either way Lord Hardie delivered the final 961 paged report on the disaster that was the construction of the Edinburgh Trams. It has taken a grand total of nine years for this report to be published, since the inquiry was originally called upon by Alex Salmond back in 2014. Just like the trams themselves this report has come at a huge cost to the Scottish taxpayers with a hefty £13 million price-tag, however Lord Hardie has assured us that the net cost was actually nearer to £8.7 million due to the re-using of existing resources. However, that still means the cost of this inquiry is in the same league as the Chilcot inquiry, which looked into the Iraq war and also took less time.

In simple terms the inquiry was set up to uncover the reasons as to why the Edinburgh tram project was eye wateringly over budget and was completed five years later than expected. The first leg of the tram project certainly left the residents of Edinburgh and beyond with a feeling of distain and internal eye rolling every time the trams were mentioned.

It was hit with more than a few speed bumps along the way. With several million documents to sift through it was never going to be a swift process. Yet it also had to consider resistance from organisations to comply with the inquiry, there was a break-in at the inquiry’s offices and it also had to grapple with a pandemic. By all accounts it was not smooth sailing.

The inquiry found that the blame for the poorly executed trams lay with Edinburgh City Council, their arms-length company TIE, who were in charge of overseeing the project, and the Scottish Government. Although the 961 pages of the inquiry delve into much more detail, why it took nine years to come to that conclusion, I am unsure. You don’t go five years over your schedule with one bad apple, the whole lot needs to be rotten.

The 24 recommendations produced by the inquiry tell the story of unproductive in-fighting, individuals and organisations trying to one up each other and utterly criminal mismanagement of public funds. In fact the inquiry believes that if the true cost of the project had accurately been estimated then there would have been no way of justifying it. Neither Edinburgh City Council nor the Scottish Government or the court of public opinion would have agreed to the final figure. Oh and that final figure has been adjusted ever so slightly, again. What was originally reported as £776.7 million has now jumped to £835.7 million, but with the loan to consider the overall cost when will be closer to £1 billion. Imagine how many hospitals or new schools could have been built in place of a line that goes from the Gyle shopping centre to Princes Street, in a city with a top-notch bus system. How could anyone justify a £1 billion tram line to those living in the Borders who are seeing their public transport go down the drain. Or to those living in Aberdeenshire who rely on a wholly private shoddy bus timetable that costs an arm and leg, when Edinburgh had a perfectly good public transport system already in place. But I digress.

Then we come to the arms-length organisation in charge of the project Tie. It seems that a failure by them to collaboratively work with council officials and provide them with truthful updates. Additionally their exclusion from the procurement strategy meant they were unable to effectively manage risk throughout the work. Overall their management of the project could be described as a rammy.

Among the recommendations is a suggestion to change Scotland legislation so that criminal or civil charges could be brought to individuals or organisations who knowingly submit reports that include false information. A very telling recommendation for the severity of the situation. Quite frankly it is criminal.

With the inquiry moving at a glacier place this certainly gave politicians time to warm up their finger-pointing skills. I’m sure Douglas Ross had been practicing in the mirror for years, while SNP leaders prepared their venomous denials and Labour I’m sure perfected their ability to look at the ceiling while avoiding eye-contact.

Although the inquiry did point to the Government’s lack of oversight through the planning process and the works, it also specifically pin-points the decision by John Swinney to pull all involvement by Transport Scotland, perhaps one of the only organisations originally involved who had experience in delivering a project of such scale. This was a major misstep and was one of the factors that almost led to the collapse of the project. For this he has been asked to explain. However, they need to be more specific as Mr Swinney will most likely explain why in fact they are wrong.

Yet this wasn’t the SNP’s brainchild, they weren’t even in Government when the idea came into being. In fact the Scottish Parliament wasn’t even open when the idea was floated. The SNP promised to stop the project as part of their 2007 campaign but it seemed that even after they had won there was no stopping the Labour policy from rolling down the line. Which the Conservatives also supported. So they most definitely all have a part to play in this debacle.

The findings from the inquiry have been in some cases viciously attacked. Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition, Mairi McAllan MSP took aim at the inquiry itself pointing out the cost and more significantly the evidence utilised and the conclusions drawn. This is a judicial process which looks to find truth, it is therefore quite concerning that the SNP still feel the need to once again ignore any suggestion that maybe they didn’t get it quite right. Where is the accountability for £500 million of public spending wasted? Either way it isn’t look to good for those 24 recommendations.

On reflection both the tram works and inquiry are representative of what constantly occurs in Scotland.

Have you ever seen the time-lapsed video of Dutch construction workers building a 70-foot-long tunnel in one weekend? It’s impressive. Could you ever imagine that happening in Scotland? Of course not, we aren’t that efficient. We’d take a weekend to decide where the cones would be placed.

Scotland has good intentions but poor follow through. Policies and projects move at the same pace as the tram construction and the inquiry. As a nation we often have the right ideas, apart from when that involves selling everything we have to others, but when that isn’t occurring I truly believe we are a progressive nation with our hearts in the right place. Yet we lack the systems, practicalities, common sense, and dedication to see things through. Bureaucracy isn’t solely to blame either, there are plenty of other European countries that have to deal with bureaucracy and don’t have the mind-boggling delays that we have. Just look at Wales, a country that has designed, funded, and implemented some great policies while Scotland just continues to go in circles and in-fight about the very same things.

Were the trams value for money? With their projected real-life cost estimated at £1 billion, I don’t think so. Was the inquiry value for money, time will tell.

1 thought on “The Tram Saga Continues”

  1. The reason for the cost of the tram line being so expensive is that the council did not use the same specifications as used elsewhere, Nottingham, Sheffield, etc.

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