Edinburgh tram extension costs must not spiral out of control – Steve Cardownie

Edinburgh City Council’s meeting tomorrow will decide whether or not to extend the tram from York Place down to Newhaven. This is likely to be the single most important decision that this current administration will make and its importance has been stressed by council leader Adam McVey in his ­report to council.

An artists impression of trams on Leith Walk  the likely outcome of tomorrows meeting
An artists impression of trams on Leith Walk  the likely outcome of tomorrows meeting

The report opens thus: “We’re about to take a decision crucial to Edinburgh’s future growth and prosperity – whether or not to proceed with taking the trams to Newhaven. This isn’t simply a transport decision; it’s about helping the Capital’s economy grow sustainably as more than 100,000 new residents will call our city home over the next two decades.

“Trams are key to unlocking brownfield development sites in the north of the city – creating homes, jobs and connecting thousands of people to major employment, leisure and travel hubs in an accessible way that cuts down congestion on our already busy road network.”

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So that sets the scene for what will prove to be a lively debate but one which will be academic as the decision will have already been taken to give the project the green light. No amount of speeches, deputations or demonstrations will influence the outcome.

In the words of the council leader when referring to the proposal: “It’s a robust case that takes on board ­lessons from the first project, incorporates a very conservative risk allocation, meets our key commitments to support businesses through construction and highlights significant ­benefits for communities in Leith, Newhaven and north Edinburgh – and, crucially, doesn’t add any ­pressure to council budgets.”

So, the administration has set out its stall and made the case for the extension to proceed and with the support of the Green group will ­successfully carry a motion of ­support of the proposal at tomorrow’s meeting.

The Conservative group will oppose the scheme, as will the Lib Dem group, but to no avail. The tram line that currently runs through the city was supported by both these groups, but for their own reasons they will now record their disapproval of proceeding at this time – the Conservatives because they are not convinced by the case for going ahead and the Lib Dems because it is premature to proceed before the Tram Inquiry presents its findings.

Many years ago, when I suggested that the current tram line would prove to be a “Holyrood on wheels” when presenting my motion of opposition to the tracks from York Place to the airport, the Conservative group leader poured scorn on the idea, ­saying that “there were too many checks and balances in place to allow that to ­happen”.

Given the final cost versus the ­projected cost at that time, history has proved who was right and it would now appear that the same Conservative leader is now once bitten, twice shy.

In a column in Monday’s paper, the leader of the Lib Dems stated: “It is only common sense that if we are spending literally millions of pounds on an inquiry into what went wrong last time we should at least hear what it has to say before we sign another raft of legal documents.”

His opposition therefore is not to the principle but rather the timing.

Whilst it all makes for a lively and interesting debate tomorrow it will, as I have said, conclude with the ­go-ahead being given.

Within point nine of the report to be presented to the meeting, it states, “To note that the cost estimate of £207.3 million was the budget for this project and agreed this figure must be held to.”

Given that this kind of project can hardly be abandoned once started (half-completed tram tracks to nowhere in particular?) it would be unforgivable if it proved to be yet another Holyrood on wheels. Surely the checks and balances will be more robust this time. If not the city will pay the price – again.