The Edinburgh trams diktat


by Hazel Lewry

It is time for Holyrood to act.  The farce of the Edinburgh trams scandal should never be allowed to be repeated.  It appears well within Holyrood’s apparently limited scope of powers to prevent a recurrence of this disaster.

Edinburgh and its citizens have become a strange hybrid between a political football and a political punching bag, at least in so far as the trams go.

However anyone chooses to describe it, the fact that will remain is what could have been another step in Edinburgh’s incredible story has instead become a blemish, the mother of all warts in the soft underbelly of our capital, an unmitigated disaster.

In 2007 the trams project was rammed through Holyrood by the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties in an effort to discredit the SNP’s new Holyrood minority administration. The Union parties against the will of the Scottish nation.  The Union won, the Scots get a near worthless but very costly legacy.

Let us be very clear, the trams project would never have seen the light of day without Holyrood funding it with our money.  That funding was voted through by the Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative parties.  It was voted through against the desires of the minority SNP administration.

Now the news is that the tram line will stop at Haymarket.  Utter folly.

The council has apparently decided that they have to reach a political solution that has the potential of saving face – to Hades with saving money, Scotland’s reputation or the repercussions of decades of encumbrances on the electorate.

I have been peripherally involved with many high value projects, some of which involved spending tens of millions of pounds and coordinating several thousand employees over just a month or two, to larger longer term plans.

I have observed first hand just what it takes to do this, and how apparently seamless and simple it can appear from the outside.  I am therefore totally unimpressed by Scotland’s larger councils, although as evidenced by the current Forth Bridge project that appears to be changing at central government level.

On no occasion I can ever think of has any plan ever been put forward where an investment of around £700 million should be made in a project or product that is going to either make a £4 million-a-year annual loss or just simply be scrapped.  That’s just an estimate of the funds to date but few are impressed with Edinburgh council’s maths.

I travel substantially.  I passed through Edinburgh Airport in May.  Edinburgh Council is now asking me to exit the airport, find the tram station, get on and pay for a tram, get off the tram at Haymarket, find a bus, taxi or train while hauling my luggage, and after probable delays and waits get to Waverley, St Andrews’ Square or other location, more waits and then I can proceed with my journey.  This with the added vagaries of Scotland’s weather.

I’m not going to do that.  This also means a substantial number of my fellow travellers will probably share my views.

I’m going to get a bus or taxi directly to the next transport hub or destination I need.

Business people flying in will have the same perspective.  In business trips you want to be in and out as quickly as possible.

Tourists will discover it to be anything from a pain to an inconvenience.  Neither will reflect well.

I would have used the tram service to go to another transport hub.

I suspect the people of Edinburgh will rarely use this service for the same reasons.  Most of us don’t need to go to the airport from Corstorphine on a daily basis.  It should be scrapped.

What this has effectively demonstrated to me is that while I’m all in favour of trams, I’m not in favour of politicians making business decisions on my behalf, especially when it becomes such a farcical situation as now exists in Edinburgh.

The overruns and excesses of the Parliament building also spring to mind.

Then we have a tale of two governmental parties, and I refer to Unionist and Nationalist.  I contrast the previously bandied around figures of £4 billion for a replacement Forth crossing under the Labour Lib Dem coalition to the final contracted, apparently all-in fixed cost of around £1.2 billion with the SNP administration.  After four years plus of inflation the final bridge cost was reduced by about two thirds.  What on Earth were Labour and the Lib Dems doing?

Someone somewhere is exhibiting every trait of gross incompetence.  In the case of Edinburgh’s trams it was apparently the elected representatives of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties.  Last week we discovered the indefensible business decision to stop the trams at Haymarket was taken by a coalition of Labour and Conservatives.

Blue and Red, the political roses controlled by England, shook hands in agreement and created a massive white elephant, in the process hanging a heavy burden of debt around the collective necks of the good people of Edinburgh.  

Perhaps those who would vote themselves into penury by supporting the continuation of England’s political parties within Scotland really need to look into a psychological condition; it’s called Stockholm syndrome.  They may discover it has applicability.

Any member of any party who has voted for the tram project or voted to authorize expenditures on its behalf should resign forthwith.  They have demonstrated what I can only refer to as negligence and dereliction of duty while discharging public office.

The ongoing costs for this debacle should come from responsible party coffers.  This would correct issues quickly enough, but I’m not holding my breath for that one.

Only in Scotland does it seem that Scots are unable to run their own affairs, to operate within normal realms of business practice.

Only in Scotland does it seem we Scots so consistently and almost unfailingly manage to not deliver what was promised, on time, on budget.  It’s most fortunate that national projects appear to be starting to diverge from this perception.  Oddly enough most of these divergent projects have only been on the books for less than five years.

This incredible domestic project mismanagement happens while Scots have entirely the opposite reputation in virtually every other nation of the globe.

Then again, only in Scotland is the Union influence so heavily present and so incredibly negative.

So well respected are we Scots that our national flag, the Saltire, is embedded as a mark of respect in that of other nations, including Russia specifically her navy. It is there out of respect for services rendered by dedicated Scots to grateful nations, not because of dominion or conquest.

I’m forced to ask if it is primarily another “Union Dividend”, something to keep Scots divided against ourselves and prevent us reaching the very lofty heights at home which our expatriates and diaspora consistently achieve overseas.

Holyrood must act in whatever presently limited fashion available to it.  It must do so until either a referendum of Scots dictates otherwise, or our elected Parliament stands up and is counted amongst the sovereign nations of our world.

Parliament can simply pass an act that will apply to all government contracts at any level in our country.

The act I’d suggest in its basic elements is simple.  Let’s call it the Government Responsibility and Accountability Bill.  GRAB for short.  GRAB would involve any contract that exceeds say 5% of the annual budget for any government body to be put to a vote of approval by those within the boundaries of that body.  Any contract; services, land, buildings, and the contracts must be published and available for public review prior to approval.

In summary the process would work like this.

  • Our elected representatives decide we need a product or service. It is above the preset minimum value.
  • A proposal for bid is issued.
  • Proposals are received and evaluated.
  • The lowest and best proposal, together with the second lowest and best are put to the area electorate.
  • The area electorate decide that they either want bid one, bid two, or don’t want the project at all.

It’s simple, it’s democracy, it’s a safety check, it’s now Holyrood’s responsibility to ensure it happens.

The second aspect of GRAB would be to prevent spiraling costs.  Every contract must be negotiated as a fixed cost contract with the contractor responsible for carrying indemnity to ensure proper performance.  Change orders should be statutorily limited to 10% of the total contract value.  All parties had better get their numbers correct, or very close.  Contracts should be performance based, meaning if the contractor fails to perform the contractor doesn’t get paid.

I have heard the argument that companies will not bid for contracts like these.  Oddly enough the contracts are almost always bid upon.  The very few that obtain no bids are clearly stating, right up front, it’s not viable.  New nuclear would be unlikely to obtain bids.

So, Mr. Salmond, you have a majority, you appear to have the legal and lawful remit to do this, or something very much like it.  Do you have the will, fortitude and integrity to return such a significant portion of democracy back into the hands of the electorate?

This is, effectively, taxation with representation.

Edinburgh has wasted over £500 million of our money.  We the citizens had no input and apparently also have no recourse.  We should never be the casualties in a crude sparring match between the political dogs of war, because the Scots people quite simply deserve so much better than that.

Oddly messes of this size appear to be something that’s most prevalent in high profile, high budget projects of almost national significance.  Projects that often provide a decidedly London biased media an object of ridicule.

Is there a will at Holyrood to GRAB power from potentially corrupt or simply grossly incompetent officials and place it directly back into the hands of the sovereign people of Scotland?

A move such as this would signify an end to the “gravy train” for some, it would also signal a level of enfranchisement that has heretofore been almost completely unknown in mainland Britain.

In all likelihood it would rein in government spending. Does anyone think the public could have been convinced to vote for PFI/PPI?  I don’t, I personally put the intelligence level of my average fellow Scot far above such stupidity.  We have items like PPI/PFI because we had no real democratic voice.

The absence of a true democratic voice is definitively a Union Dividend.  Just look to the London Parties refusing an independence referendum.  That is another glaring example of a Union democratic deficit.

An act or bill, outlined above and instituted at Holyrood could prevent many of these ridiculous 30 year contracts for hundreds of millions issued by our health boards, or town and city councils; it would ensure a case would be required to be made to the people for every substantial contract.

In short, it would go a long way to ensuring democracy.  Moreover it would help to ensure an efficient democracy.  This should be the Edinburgh Trams Diktat, this should be the projects greatest legacy, for then perhaps the project will have had value.

Over to you, Holyrood.