Pressure intensifies on Labour over trams fiasco

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by a Newsnet reporter

Pressure intensified on Labour this weekend following the news that there is to be an inquiry into the handling of the Edinburgh trams project.

On Saturday 27th August, First Minister Alex Salmond announced that there would be a public inquiry to examine why project management of the trams went so badly wrong. This follows the furious response to last week’s council vote that approved a Labour proposal for a line that stops short of the city centre, terminating at Haymarket.

According to critics the new plans makes the tram line financially unviable and it will require further public funds in order to bail it out once operational.  Labour’s plan was pushed through the council with support from Tory councillors.

The outcry over the plan has led the leader of the Labour group, Andrew Burns, to  apologise for the mess the beleaguered project is currently in.  Council officials are believed to be looking into the possibility of a special meeting that may see another vote held and the possibility of Labour voting down their own proposal.

Council officials are currently examining the newly revised plan amidst doubt that it will save any money at all.  Liberal Democrat Councillor Gordon Mackenzie, current convenor of the Council’s transport committee said there may have to be a special meeting to re-examine the new proposal “because the Haymarket option is so poorly thought out and there is so little substance behind it.”

The Haymarket option may end up costing an additional £10 million as there are cancellation costs and the turn-back facility for trams currently planned for Haymarket is designed as a safety measure for broken down vehicles, and not for regular use in a busy station.  This facility may require a complete re-design at a cost of millions.

As transport convener in Edinburgh council in 2006 when the council had a Labour led administration, Councillor Burns was the politician who introduced the tram project in its current form.  In the original proposal it was intended that the tram would run from the airport through the city centre to Newhaven in Leith.  Future extensions into other parts of the capital were also envisaged.  

Escalating costs have seen the building schedule fall further and further behind.  In an attempt to get a grip on the ballooning expenses, the Edinburgh Council recently voted to shorten the route, axeing the section from the city centre to Leith.  Last week’s vote shortened the route even further while costs have soared from the original £375 million for the route from the airport to Leith to a current estimate of £830 million for a much shorter line.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday Councillor Burns said that the people of Edinburgh, “are absolutely due an apology.  I am personally extremely sorry for the way that it has unravelled in the last four or five years.”

In an attempt to divert blame from the Labour party, Councillor Burns added that the difficulties in the project really began in 2007, when Labour lost control of Edinburgh Council, adding: “Quite clearly it has had a very, very sorry history, particularly since the middle of 2007 when there has been no clear leadership or vision.  It has completely unravelled in that time and people are absolutely right to be angry and annoyed about it.  I am pretty dismayed myself.”

The councillor also rejected claims that the line would run at a loss of £4m a year, saying: “I think these figures need to be challenged and need to be challenged very robustly.  We don’t believe them.  That section of the line could be made to work at a break-even position.”

The SNP both nationally and locally have consistently opposed the tram project.  However with so much uncertainty currently surrounding the project, First Minister Alex Salmond refused to bow to calls from Labour MSP Kezia Dougdale’s calls for an immediate enquiry, stating instead that the enquiry would be held once the dust has settled.  

A spokesperson for the First Minister said: “We will be delighted to have a public inquiry into the trams fiasco, and will do so once there is greater clarity about the direction of the project so that its full circumstances can be examined.”