Trams probe chief calls on public for evidence

The public will be able to submit evidence. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
The public will be able to submit evidence. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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Members of the public have finally been given the chance to assist the inquiry into the shambolic construction of the city’s tram line, after the judge in charge of the probe issued a public appeal for evidence.

Lord Hardie has also taken the unprecedented step of publishing a detailed list of lines of inquiry being pursued by investigators, shedding light on where the former Lord Advocate feels the project may have gone wrong.

In addition, members of the public will be able to suggest their own areas for the inquiry to examine – and can offer their account of how years of tram works blighted their lives and businesses.

The list of 65 “areas of interest” confirms that the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland is potentially in the firing line, as well as council staff, councillors and private contractors who carried out botched work.

It also suggests the probe will take a wider look at the economic impact of the city’s truncated tram line, with the failure to develop Leith Docks highlighted as one of the impacts to be considered.

In an interview with the Evening News, Lord Hardie hit back at critics complaining about the pace and cost of the inquiry, saying his team was “working flat out” and adding that if the inquiry stopped future infrastructure debacles taking place, it would deliver value for money.

And he revealed that witnesses would be cross-examined by QCs in a specially arranged inquiry “chamber” next to its offices in the Waverley Gate building, a few dozen metres from where the tram line terminates in the heart of Edinburgh.

Appealing for members of the public to tell the inquiry how the debacle affected them, Lord Hardie said: “The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry must base its findings on direct evidence from those affected by the planning and construction phase of the Edinburgh Trams project.

“Whether a local resident, business, developer or other interested party, this is the public’s opportunity to offer views on the direction of the inquiry and to provide evidence for consideration.”

Three tram lines totalling more than 15 miles were initially planned at a cost of

£375 million when the project was first announced in 2001. When the line between the airport and York Place began operating in May last year, the price tag was £776m plus interest for just 8.7 miles of track, five years behind schedule.

As well as massive disruption in the city centre, Leith residents were the worst hit, with businesses driven to ruin by years of utility works but no tram to show for it as budget overruns saw the line slashed.

The judge added: “I promised at the appropriate time that I would make a formal call for evidence.

“I’m fulfilling that promise, but I’m going further, because I’m publishing the list of issues that we are actively involved in investigating. As far as I’m aware, that’s unprecedented.

“A public inquiry wouldn’t go into what it was doing day to day, but the purpose of publishing that is to help the public, so that they can look at the issues, and if they think ‘he’s forgotten this, or they’ve overlooked that’ it’s their chance to tell me this is another issue I should look at. I along with the team will look at all these representations and decide if there should be additional issues considered. We’re not infallible.”

Critics of the inquiry have repeatedly questioned why, almost a year after being appointed, Lord Hardie has yet to call any witnesses. Edinburgh Central SNP MSP Marco Biagi called the probe “near comatose”.

Yesterday Lord Hardie hit back, saying he wasn’t “sitting back twiddling my thumbs” and revealing the mountain of evidence that has been uncovered so far. The number of documents being examined by investigators has swollen from two million in December to more than five million. He said: “If the public want an inquiry into what went wrong, and if they want the answers to why there was such a huge overspend, why it took years longer than it should, and why the line was curtailed, then hopefully they will appreciate that it is quite a large task to give these answers, and it involves examining a huge number of documents.

Lord Hardie said sophisticated technology and software was being used to sift through the rapidly-growing mountain of evidence.

“We’re fortunate that we’re in a digital age, and we have technology that can help us to analyse this material,” he said.

“The process that we have is an intelligent system that we train – we tell the system what we want. The documents are put in and the system then analyses these documents and tells us which ones comply with our lines of inquiry.

The inquiry chair added that he was working four full days a week on the inquiry, with his team putting in much longer hours to collate and examine evidence.

“Of course I share the concern that it is important to have a robust, thorough and efficient inquiry, and I’m not one to be sitting back twiddling my thumbs,” Lord Hardie said.

“Nor is the team – they are working flat out. They are a very dedicated team doing a tremendous job.

“If we need additional resources, we’ll ask the Scottish Government for them.

“I’m conscious of the public concern that this should come to a conclusion as soon as possible, but there’s no point in rushing it in the sense that we simply rush to judgement without the evidence.

“Professional people with specialist skills are working very long hours to get satisfactory answers to the questions that I am asking them to look at.”

Gordon Henderson, development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses, said its members along Leith Walk and in the city centre would be taking up Lord Hardie’s offer to describe the misery of years of tram chaos.

He said: “During the long construction phase the trams were discussed at every member event and meeting, we received many e-mails from members and we surveyed them for their views.

“Based on the views gathered from our surveys, the FSB repeatedly called for a clear construction timeline, with start-finish dates in each section, and a decision on where the trams would and would not run.

“Our members repeatedly called for this information so that they could plan a post-tram works future for their businesses but it took a long time to get and many of them were badly affected.

“It is vital that this inquiry hears from as many affected people as possible and that includes the city’s small business owners so that lessons are learned before any further major infrastructure works affecting them are undertaken.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said: “We would certainly be surprised if the inquiry wasn’t speaking to us and looking at our role and the rationale for some of the

decisions taken.

“In fact, we have already provided all of the relevant documents in our possession to the inquiry, and will continue to offer assistance as and when requested.”

The ‘Areas of Interest’

Initial proposals

The initial estimates for the cost of the project, as well as how the business case for the trams was approved by the city council.

Procurement

The creation of Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) to run the tram project, the decision to deliver the scheme through multiple separate contracts, and how those contracts were awarded.

Design

The contract for the design of the project, and problems with design work.

Utilities

What records existed of utilities along the tram route when diversion works began, the cost of that work, and the knock-on effects on the rest of the project.

Infrastructure

The contract with Bilfinger Berger-Siemens – how it was negotiated and approved and whether the consortium met its obligations. The dispute between the contractors and the council will also be examined.

Tram Vehicles

The number of trams purchased for the line, only half of which are currently operating at any one time.

Management

The management of the overall project and individual contracts, as well as TIE’s workload and the hiring of consultants Turner and Townsend.

Local Governance

How the council managed the project, including whether councillors or officers took charge, and how experienced those in authority were.

National Governance

The impact of the 2007 election of an SNP government, and whether Transport Scotland treated the project differently from other infrastructure schemes.

Costs

Comparison between the estimated costs at each stage and the actual cost.

Consequences

The impact on residents, businesses, developers and the council, and the damage to the city’s reputation, as well as whether the current tram line meets the original objectives of the project.

Alternatives

Lessons for the future.

‘Cost worth it to stop future mistakes’

Inquiry chairman Lord Hardie has rejected claims the tram probe is costing too much, after it was revealed this week that £900,000 has been spent before a single witness has appeared.

The judge said the inquiry needed “expensive” technology to sift through a mountain of five million documents collected as evidence, and said the inquiry would save the public purse money if it stopped future infrastructure disasters from taking place.

Lord Hardie said: “Hopefully everyone will understand that if we’re talking about recovering and analysing five million documents, and procuring as we have done expensive equipment which is necessary to save time and to get to an answer as quickly as possible, that involves a cost.

“Every member of the team is fully aware of the need for economy and fully aware of the need for value for money, and I myself am committed to getting value for money.

“If I’m able to make recommendations that the Scottish Government are able to implement, which result in less likelihood of wasting expenditure on major public projects, then hopefully that will be seen as a benefit.”

“I don’t want to waste time analysing that when the pressure is on to get on with the job.”