Alastair Dalton: Time for Edinburgh trams inquiry to get on track

One of Edinburgh's trams at York Place. Picture: Greg Macvean
One of Edinburgh's trams at York Place. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IT IS the moment everyone who has been angered by Edinburgh’s tram fiasco has been waiting for.

In the bowels of a building where the city’s mail was once sorted, Lord Hardie will next week try to put in order the mess of the £776 million project to build an eight-mile tram line.

The first – “preliminary” – hearing of the (very) long-awaited Edinburgh Tram Inquiry takes place on Wednesday. As to what happens after that, we have been told little.

About all that is known is that the former judge has said further hearings will be used primarily for witnesses to elaborate on their written evidence.

However, it will be crucial for the inquiry to manage expectations about its pace and likely timescale after they were raised by ministers last year.

The then first minister Alex Salmond announced in June 2014: “Lord Hardie will establish the inquiry immediately and we look forward to a swift and thorough inquiry.”

Then, five months later, when the Scottish Government decided the inquiry should become statutory so reluctant witnesses could be compelled to give evidence, it said: “It is not anticipated the change in status will affect the cost or timescale of the inquiry.”

The key players in the tram project know the first hearing will be largely procedural – just setting the scene.

It will last around two hours. There will be no witnesses. No evidence will be heard.

For other people planning to attend, expect to see a large number of lawyers, not the dramatis personae.

On all sides – the city council, contractors, and aggrieved traders and residents – there will be many itching to settle scores, and to get the truth – as they see it – out in public.

But this could all take time, and maybe a lot longer than the 14 months that have elapsed since this chapter of the saga began.

The two million documents which the inquiry team were grappling with in December has now become at least five million.

Officials won’t say if they’ve had even more – or had to draft in extra staff or supplement a computer system designed to spot “critical” items.

Even the apparent theft of laptops in a break-in at the inquiry offices – which are deep inside the former GPO Waverley Gate office complex – has never been satisfactorily explained.

So let’s hope Lord Hardie can chart a course next week, to head off the cynics and prevent the time the inquiry is taking from being the main talking point.

The tram project is going to prove a complicated subject, but it’s high time we knew when we should expect to get down to the matter in hand.