Edinburgh tram extension ‘should wait for overspend verdict’

A computer generated image of how the trams would look on Leith Walk.
A computer generated image of how the trams would look on Leith Walk.
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Authorities in Edinburgh have been urged to put on hold plans to extend the capital’s tram line until the long-awaited inquiry into how the existing network ran hundreds of millions of pounds over budget publishes its findings.

The city council’s transport and environment committee is due to decide tomorrow whether to identify a potential contractor for the extension of the line to Newhaven, before the full council reviews the plan later this month. A final decision is expected next year.

It comes as the inquiry’s first public hearings begin on Tuesday, with former leaders of the local authority among those appearing as witnesses.

With the hearings process expected to last several months and no timescale for when the inquiry publishes its final report, the council has been urged to wait before approving the extension.

Adam McVey, the council leader, warned last week against the idea of sitting “idle” while it waited on “an indefinite undefined timescale to complete”.

But Charlotte Encombe, chair of Leith Central Community Council, said: “Businesses in Leith have already suffered from years of roadworks and yet the plan is for another 18 months of works on Leith Walk for the extension. I don’t think the trams project was thought through properly, and there are questions about the process and timing of the extension.

“Is it going to be the same white elephant as the current scheme? We need to look forward and connect places like Newhaven and Leith docks, but I think the priority should be controlled parking.”

The tram project was originally supposed to cost £375 million for a 15-mile length of track, due to be completed by 2011, but the city ended up with a truncated nine-mile route from the airport to York Place, opened in 2014 at a cost of £776m. Interest charges are expected to nudge the final bill above £1 billion.

The first few days and weeks of the inquiry – presided over by Lord Hardie, a former Lord Advocate – will generate intense interest, given the initial witness list includes three former leaders of the local authority: Donald Anderson, Ewan Aitken and Jenny Dawe.

The inquiry team’s summary remit is disarmingly straightforward: to establish why the trams project endured delays, budget overruns, and reductions in scope which meant the initiative delivered less than was first thought.

Dissect that summary, however, and there lies a complex tangle of questions relating to procurement processes, design contracts, utility works, the legal advice given to City of Edinburgh Council, and how vigilant staff and elected officials were in monitoring the project.

The oral hearings are taking place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays of each week until all evidence is heard, a process the inquiry has said will likely take “several months” to run its course.

The inquiry’s opening day will see Dawe give evidence in the morning, followed by Lesley Hinds, the former transport convener, in the afternoon.

On Wednesday, Aitken and Anderson will give evidence, while on Thursday, it will be the turn of Tory councillor Iain Whyte and Jeremy Balfour, the Tory councillor turned MSP.