Scottish Government's track record of monumental public spending failures is built on ego and ambition – John McLellan

It’s easy to scoff at the magnificent Italian marble monument to bad taste that is the grave of Willy “The King” Collins in a Sheffield cemetery.

The late former bare-knuckle boxer Willy Collins’ grave in Sheffield
The late former bare-knuckle boxer Willy Collins’ grave in Sheffield

Who knew there was so much money in bare-knuckle boxing, but isn’t there a bit in all of us that wants to leave a reminder to the rest of the world of the contribution we made during our speck of time on the planet?

The problem is if that mark impacts on more than the families of the people in the next plots and the money it takes isn’t yours, and the more the cost seems like small beer compared to the vast resources at your disposal and the promised benefits, the bolder the projects can become. HS2 anyone?

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At the heart of Edinburgh sits the Grand Design which has become a by-word not just for public sector profligacy and mismanagement but for the projection of political ambition at public expense.

First we had Holyrood itself, ten times over the initial budget and years late, then Holyrood on Wheels, the Edinburgh tram line which doubled in price and remains unfinished. Now we have Holyrood at Sea, two unfinished ferries for which costs have all but trebled.

It’s easy to get carried along by visions and smooth-talking lubricated with optimism bias, and as editor of the Edinburgh Evening News, I put the paper behind the choice of the old Scottish & Newcastle headquarters site for the new parliament, for which I received a thank-you phone call from the late Donald Dewar, and then with some reluctance seven years later backed the tram proposal after the then chief executive of Lothian Buses, an arch tram sceptic, underwent a miraculous transformation into an enthusiast. It transpired he’d been threatened with the sack.

As we now know, the cost estimate for the parliament building went from a fantasy £40m in the original government White Paper to over £400m, and from an original completion target of autumn 2001 it took until the summer of 2004 for the first staff to move in.

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By then plans for an Edinburgh tram network had gathered pace, and from a cost estimate of just under £500m for two lines in 2003, three-quarters of a line was delivered in 2014 for £776m.

As problems mounted, I can still remember the chief executive of the tram company, TIE, Michael Howell angrily declaring “this is not Holyrood on Wheels” when that’s exactly what it was. The other quarter won’t be finished until the middle of next year at the earliest, at an additional cost of well over £200m, an estimate calculated when everyone thought high inflation was for bouncy castles.

Only with a fair wind will the two basic Highland ferries under construction at the nationalised Clyde shipyard Ferguson Marine set sail in two years’ time, five years late and £150m over the original £97m estimate. With the absence of any financial guarantees, the chances of the bill rising before the first mobile home trundles up the gangway must be high.

The problem in all three cases is that those ultimately calling the shots were making political decisions, if not overtly party political then certainly symbolic with a spin-off; practical, lower cost, lower risk alternatives binned because they didn’t send the right signal.

As the Scottish Parliament’s inaugural Presiding Officer David Steel once told me when the Holyrood bill had reached a mere £200m: “History will not record the name of the accountant.”

Donald Dewar did not want his new parliament to be housed in a building which was a symbol of the failed devolution attempt of 1979, but an architectural statement of ambition.

Costs were underplayed to avoid scaring voters in the 1997 referendum, but even when it was revised to £50m, he already knew the Miralles plan had reached £62m. When Ferguson Marine, the last yard on the Clyde, went into administration, First Minister Alex Salmond discovered his inner Jimmy Reid and arranged its takeover by the billionaire Jim McColl. A week before the 2014 referendum. Lo and behold, a year later with Nicola Sturgeon in charge it was named as the preferred bidder for the two ferries despite being the most expensive of six, and was nationalised after it went back into administration in 2019.

Millions of tax-payer pounds have been blown on political ambition, so it’s no surprise the Scottish Government is having trouble finding the relevant paperwork to explain why then transport minister Derek Mackay ordered the ferries without financial safeguards.

As always, there will be claims that it will never happen again, when to achieve that would require those standing for political office involving the careful management of public money to be lobotomised to remove the part of their brains which control ego and personal ambition. The glassy-eyed look of triumph on Mr Mackay’s face as he announced the shipyard takeover to the SNP conference should serve as a warning.

Whatever lessons might be learnt from Ferguson Marine weren’t learnt from Prestwick Airport, nationalised in 2013 for £1 but since costing the tax-payer around £50m despite only a handful more passenger services than East Fortune airfield, and significantly fewer customers.

At least the Scottish Government stepped back from nationalising Burntisland wind turbine manufacturer BiFab in 2020 but only after pumping £37m into the ailing firm and it hasn’t stopped them snatching ScotRail from the Dutch national operator Abellio, nationalised as of next Friday, April Fools Day.

It has already cost £4m and despite being run by a government-owned arms-length company, the public perception will be that the buck for every ticket price rise, cancelled service and strike will stop with transport minister Jenny Gilruth. Just watch how ScotRail’s annual £500m public subsidy balloons.

Perhaps Willy Collins’ family could get their sculptors to create a monument for Scottish political ambitions. At least travelling people know how to drive a hard bargain.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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