IF she looks to her left while sitting at her desk in the City Chambers, Lesley Hinds can gaze at Joan of Arc as she leads a charge across her office wall. If she turns right she can, from her window, keep a beady eye on the current mess the tram works are making of Princes Street.
Could there be a better place for Edinburgh’s latest transport supremo to sit? An image of future martyrdom on one side, the possible reason for it on the other?
Hinds doesn’t quite see it that way. She has no intention of sacrificing herself or her 28-year-long political career to the tram cause, nor does she believe despite recent history – the past two incumbents in the job are no longer councillors – that she has been handed a poisoned chalice.
“I don’t think it’s the worst job in city politics,” she laughs. “It’s a challenge and I’m always up for a challenge. I find it interesting that a lot of people ask ‘why are you doing this?’ and want to commiserate, but then they also say ‘well if anyone can sort out the trams you can’. Without doubt there’s a lot of stress and pressure. Even my husband said this would make me or break me.”
That pressure has ratcheted up again since we spoke. Earlier this week the Evening News revealed that Councillor Hinds’ intervention last August into just where the tram should terminate – suggesting it should be Haymarket rather than York Place to keep costs down – actually resulted in a bill of £1.4m.
“That typifies the whole tram project,” she says. “I have asked for a detailed explanation of this cost as I recall we were told by officials at the time it wouldn’t cost anything, then that was later revised to suggest it had cost £300,000. I stand by my resolution at the time of terminating the tram at Haymarket because the project was spiralling out of control, but what I cannot understand is how eight days’ work – or the lack of – could cost this much.”
It’s hard to understand much of the tram costs and just where mistakes were made. And it is this which Cllr Hinds seems determined to resolve.
“I want to bring common sense back to transport. I think because of the tram there has been a lot of negativity about transport issues in Edinburgh and I want to change that. But to do that I need to win the trust of people and that means being open and honest about what’s going on, particularly with the tram.
“All I can do is ask the questions and get answers back to people. I’m not an engineer, but what I am is a person who uses Edinburgh’s roads and buses and I know there’s no point us saying everything’s great about the tram until it’s running.”
So in becoming transport convener, rather than the Labour spokeswoman in opposition, has she been privy to information she hadn’t seen before on the tram project?
“Yes, there are things that have made me ask why things were done in the way they were. I think there was a lack of common sense, and I’ve had things suggested to me recently that we should do and I’ve said no – like the tram shop for instance.
“I’ve also realised that in opposition we did not get all the information we wanted. We used to have these tram meetings at which we were just told everything is fantastic. Most of my information about what was really going on came from the Evening News.
“I was excluded from knowing things. I am not going to do the same to other elected members.”
But she adds: “I admit I have still to get to the bottom of what’s been going on and I am not letting people think that this project is something we should be shouting about. Just let’s get on with it. There have been massive mistakes but things are heading in the right direction now. And yes, let’s have a public inquiry.”
It’s easy to get bogged down in the issue of trams when it comes to discussing Edinburgh’s transport problems – she admits the council had a PR disaster over the hiring of tram drivers but insists training needs to be done now – but Hinds is keen to talk about other areas which are proving more successful – buses, cycling and even walking.
“People feel frustrated about how they get about Edinburgh, be they cyclists or drivers or bus users, even pedestrians. I want to try and make travelling around Edinburgh more positive,” she says. “For a long time the council has been seen as anti-car, but I have a car and I use it, so I cannot be accused of that. But I also use the bus and I walk a lot.
“And while I don’t cycle, I used to and perhaps can be persuaded to again in the future.”
She has pushed forward the council’s Active Travel Action Plan, which aims to ensure cycling gets easier and there are more travel choices for people. “The plan is, we’ve been told, one of the best in the country. People talk about Amsterdam and how good it is for cyclists but that’s taken years to develop, I think this is a healthy start for us in Edinburgh and the five per cent of the transport budget we’ve committed to cycling, will be used to develop the plan.
“I understand people want more spent in this area, but when you’ve got budget savings to make every year, then you have to ask which budgets should be cut in order to accommodate that? Education or health and social care? It’s all about getting the balance right.”
Hinds has a real belief that communicating with the public could solve a lot of the pent-up anger there seems to be between differing factions of the travelling public. “There are a lot of pedestrians who don’t like cyclists, cyclists who don’t like drivers and vice versa. It’s my job to cater for them all and bring them together.
“I have always believed in talking to the public about what they want. People want to know they’re being listened to, and that they can affect how things are done.
“Getting people’s trust back has to be the long-term goal. You have to be honest about what’s going on and why. I think I have a reputation for telling it like it is.”
She apparently did so when it came to bus lane cameras – getting them switched off at Willowbrae and refunding fines – and also with Ian Craig, managing director of Lothian Buses who was recently awarded a massive £47,000 bonus on top of his £160,000 salary.
“While it’s a company we should be proud of I thought those bonuses were unacceptable and told him so.
“I have always had concerns about bonuses for people in the public sector. The people of the Lothians own Lothian Buses, and while it might operate like a private firm, it’s not. I have raised my concerns. I think we as a council need to change that kind of culture.”
Certainly it seems that Hinds is busy changing the culture in the council’s transport department too. Whether it will work, she says, will only be found out in the long term.
“I want Edinburgh to have an integrated transport system with real choice for people. I know others have said it before, but I intend to deliver.”
YOUR TWITTER QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Q: Does the council accept the trams fiasco is the principal reason people avoid the city centre?
A: Not wholly, no. Obviously the length of time there have been tram works on Princes Street hasn’t helped, but we are in a recession at the moment and there’s the competition from out-of-town shopping centres as well, both of which have affected the city centre.
Q: Why are there no adequate signs on the West Approach Road forbidding pedestrians and cyclists?
A: I wasn’t aware there was a problem with safety on this road. I will look into what signs are there and what can be done to improve the situation.
Q: When 20 per cent of peak-time journeys are now taken by bike, shouldn’t 20 per cent of the transport budget go on sustainable travel?
A: We currently spend five per cent of our budget on cycling and I think that’s pretty impressive – and better than any other local authority in Scotland. Of course we want to increase it – by one per cent every year over the next four if possible – but it’s a healthy start.
Q: Why are there always so many roadworks at the same time?
A: This is a massive issue and the digging up of roads and road closures is very frustrating. I saw a sign on Market Street recently saying it would be closed for four weeks, and I thought “what for?” So I challenged it and discovered it only needed to be closed for two weeks and only in one direction. It was because of utility works for a new hotel. Now that kind of work does need to happen, but it doesn’t always mean people should be inconvenienced for weeks at a time.
The problem we have is that utility companies don’t always need to tell us when they dig up a road – they can class it as an emergency and just do it. We’re looking at the possibility of legislation through the Scottish Parliament to stop that so we can at least do some traffic modelling before a closure happens to make the changes easier.
There’s also a feeling that we just say yes to everyone and say “take as long as you like”. Procedures need to change and our inspection regime is also under review to make sure that utility companies are repairing the roads to the correct requirements.
Q: There’s always talk about Edinburgh being a model cycling city but when will it materialise? Why is there no imagination/innovation in cycling infrastructure? How will you make it safer to cycle around Edinburgh?
A: I think people have to remember that cities like Barcelona or Amsterdam have been working on cycling infrastructure for many, many years, so we can’t just do it overnight. I believe our Active Travel Action Plan puts us on the right path. It’s been praised by Sustrans as exemplary and puts us at the forefront of making things good for cyclists. And if people have imaginative ideas for infrastructure we’d be delighted to hear them.
As for safety, it’s a primary concern and while our off-road cycle paths are great, we need to look at ways of making road cycling safer, perhaps even encouraging cyclists on to roads which are quieter.
Q: What’s the expected impact on Leith Walk with the revamp compared with that of the tram works? And why is the resurfacing only going to last seven to ten years rather than 20? Why is the work being paid for from outwith the trams budget? Why will there be no trees put back? Do you support cycle lanes for Leith Walk?
A: I believe the impact won’t be as bad as this time as the works will be properly managed. People will be able to see improvements as the work progresses as it will be phased properly and traders and residents will be kept properly informed. If we say it will take six weeks then it will be done in six weeks – or sooner.
The money for the reinstatement works is coming from a mix of the trams and other budgets. And let’s face it, it comes from the council tax that people pay and I would hope the people of Leith would be delighted we’re spending £5.5 million on these works. Originally it was just £3.2m and I challenged the director to get more funding and they found another £2.3m.
As for how long the new surface will last, well that’s down to whether we might actually get a tram running down there in the future. Should we spend the money on a longer-lasting, more expensive surface and then have to rip it up, or on one which is cheaper so there will be less cost should the tram go down Leith Walk.
It’s the same with trees, so we’re looking at doing a lot of planting in tubs, though I will still be asking why we can’t have them when other cities with trams seem to be able to manage. We will be bringing back statues which were removed, and I also hope to have something done with the Shrubhill eyesore by working with artists. I do want to bring character back to Leith Walk, it’s a great shopping street.
There’s a lot of talk about cycle lanes on Leith Walk and, at the moment, the plan doesn’t involve segregated cycle lanes, but with the investment we hope to make it safer for cyclists to use the road, and around Picardy Place roundabout. However, the street is only so wide and car, bus and pedestrian use has also to be taken into account. Cycle lanes could eat into parking spaces which would affect traders and residents. Maybe we shouldn’t have a bus lane? There are all sorts of options and I’m open to suggestions of how to accommodate everyone, if that is possible.
Q: Do you still have faith in the business case for the trams?
A: Yes, I do. I don’t think things will be OK with the trams until they are up and running and people are using them. Then they will see how easily they get people around. They will be popular. I don’t think people will boycott them because of the past mistakes.
Q: Are you up to the job?
A: I’d like to think I am. I suppose time will tell, but I’m certainly determined.