Edinburgh Tram Inquiry is very, very late but here's why there is so little demand for its findings – Donald Anderson
I strongly supported it being set up and was interviewed as a witness in September 2017. One UK paper at the time accused me of “pleading for leniency for politicians” involved in the project. I have no doubt that many councillors, council officers and tram company employees acted in good faith.
They made mistakes, yes, but I believe most of those involved tried their best to deliver the project efficiently and effectively. What is also clear is that some did not.
I do not know when the inquiry will be published, but my guess is that it will arrive sometime early in the New Year – nearly six years after it started. I did point out to the inquiry that I could not help but observe I was being interviewed about a project that had suffered huge delays and went over budget by an inquiry that itself had been delayed and overrun its budget.
Indeed, the inquiry has now taken longer than the tram project to deliver and a tram extension has been agreed and is being built. I also concluded way back that whilst carrying out an inquiry must be difficult, it cannot be as complicated as actually delivering a tram.
But is that right? One political friend said the time taken may well reflect just how complex were the issues involved in delivering the tram. It is certainly an extraordinary situation.
A former political football
Equally extraordinary is the fact that despite the tram project becoming the most controversial Edinburgh issue in modern times and one of the most controversial in the UK, there is no voluble demand for answers soon. No councillors or MSPs are publicly thumping tables for the inquiry to finish. That said, the frustration from the council that no findings came forward before the decision on the tram extension was palpable if politely unstated.
The reason is the politics of the project and the politics of major developments. Put simply, the tram is no longer a political football. All the major political parties have now been involved in supporting the project in one way or another. Whatever the findings by Lord Hardie, there is not much political mileage in a project where so many parties have been so involved and where so much went wrong.
There is another complicating factor. At the time there was a widely held view politically that major projects were easy to deliver “on time and on budget”. It was equally easy to throw mud at projects that overran and overspent, and the tram project did both in spades. However, we now have a major inquiry on issues related to the construction of Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People and Department of Clinical Neurosciences in Edinburgh. There has also been repeated publicity about issues regarding the Queensferry Crossing, not least after its closure in December due to issues with ice on the wires.
Throwing rocks at rivals’ schemes
That major development projects are complicated should not be news. Planning and implementing a project that involves hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of staff will always be risky and difficult. There are particular risks for the public sector in such projects.
Historically, my experience in Edinburgh Council over many years was that the private sector could knock socks off the council on project management. I think it has improved since I left the council more than a decade ago, but it’s still complicated. Democracy is perhaps the greatest achievement of civilisation, but politicians make for challenging project managers, not always in good ways.
Too often the temptation is for opposition politicians to throw rocks at proposals made by political foes. Generally, politicians simply do not consider that one day they might have to deliver major projects themselves. The SNP in Edinburgh was strident in its criticism of the tram project, but it has ended up extending it for all the same reasons it was initiated in the first place.
We need a much more intelligent debate. Major projects often run across election periods and start with one set of politicians but end up with a change of administration that results in a major change of approach. The first major council vote I was ever involved in was the cancellation of Edinburgh’s Western Relief Road. I am glad to have done it, but it shows how significantly positions can shift.
Heroes and villains?
There can also be a lack of analysis of projects where there is not political conflict. The Borders Railway is making a fine contribution to the economy and the regeneration of Galashiels, but it had the worst business case of any transport project in the UK when it was agreed. Nobody cared.
There are often no great heroes or villains. Inquiries can be demanded in the hope they become political witch hunts. Resignations or sackings are looked for far more avidly than lessons. I await with interest the findings of the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry, but I also hope its findings will be an opportunity to genuinely learn lessons and raise the quality of debate about how to implement major development projects properly.
The inquiry is late. Very, very late. However, its findings should still be taken seriously. If anyone is found to have behaved unethically or illegally then they must be taken to task. However, where honest people made mistakes, then I would hope lessons can be properly learned and procedures introduced to avoid such calamities in future. All politicians should be willing to listen and learn as well as criticise and judge. Will it happen? Hopefully, we will find out soon in 2021.
Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh City Council
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