Transport minister Keith Brown has been reported as saying that extending the concessionary travel scheme to the Edinburgh trams would encourage other unfundable claims in a time of austerity. It is an odd claim given his agency Transport Scotland’s (TS) role in the history of the project.
Before the SNP came to power in May 2007, TS exerted its influence on the project through seats on the tram project board. These were given up in August 2007 once the terms of the grant were agreed. Finance secretary John Swinney made the grant conditional on TS oversight of the construction programme, the construction contracts and its approval the business case.
Leaving aside TS’s obvious failure to supervise payments to contractors under these conditions, the business case it agreed was largely dependent on government income from concessionary fares.
Long after the project hit the buffers in June 2012, Mr Swinney finally flexed his muscles and hinted that the entire grant would have to be repaid if the project was terminated at Haymarket, forcing the trams to continue to St Andrew Square. Since then, TS has seconded three full-time officials to the tram team, the purpose of which is not clear, their salaries met by the ratepayers of Edinburgh. This is galling, given that it was the SNP government that set the conditions, signed off on the documents and over-paid the grant that put this project on track to financial disaster.
It is unfortunate that Mr Brown should chose now to make a stand on project costs at the expense of pensioners and other potential concessionary fare holders. Had the Scottish Government put its foot down in 2008, when it was already clear the project had breached its conditions, the people of Scotland could have saved £300 million and Edinburgh council taxpayers would have not had to find an extra £260m to bail out the project.