Donald MacKay: Driving on with Edinburgh trams

With the most difficult and costly part of the initial planned route near to delivery, Edinburgh's tram system is ripe for further extension. Picture: Ian Rutherford
With the most difficult and costly part of the initial planned route near to delivery, Edinburgh's tram system is ripe for further extension. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Now that the first phase of the Edinburgh tram system is nearing completion, vision is needed to extend the network and make it fully viable, writes Sir Donald MacKay

WHEN the trams arrive at York Place in Edinburgh, Churchill would have asked, is this “the end” or “the end of the beginning”? Modern trams have proved highly popular in a number of European cities and have often been extended after initial experience. In Edinburgh, the city authorities may have made a Horlicks of the initial construction phase, but the most difficult and costly part of the initial planned route is near to delivery.

Edinburgh is a growing city. The Registrar General has suggested that, by 2035, its population might increase by 125,000 to reach 611,000. There has been a change from overall decline to growth in Scotland’s population and a marked north-easterly shift in population distribution. Edinburgh is strongly represented in the probable growth industries of the future and will require residential, office and manufacturing space in the north and west of the city, with an integrated transport system linking its main transport hubs and population centres with each other and the city centre.

In the city centre, a modal shift to trams and shoe leather is required to provide a welcoming environment to city centre residents, visitors and pedestrians. The critical year in the tram project was 2011. There was serious pressure to revert to Edinburgh’s traditional policy of creating gap sites and holes in the ground, or stopping a project in the wrong place i.e. Haymarket. The Scottish Government, which when a minority administration had been forced to support the capital cost of construction, applied the principle of letting bygones be bygones. That is, a major capital project should only be abandoned if the additional cost not yet committed is in excess of the benefit of taking the project to a sensible place (in the first instance, the city centre). It was not, so the Scottish Government insisted that its support remained capped and would only be paid if the trams reached the city centre.

The trams will be popular with many local residents and business and tourist visitors, especially those using Edinburgh Airport. This handles 9 million-plus passenger movements per annum, with a central forecast of 12m-plus by 2020. The tram route links the airport with two major hubs in the city – Haymarket and Waverley. An extended tram network would provide a much improved and integrated transport network for residents and visitors alike. But first, it will be necessary to demonstrate that the city centre can provide a more people friendly environment. The city has, courtesy of an architect/planner from Copenhagen called Jan Gehl, a sensible strategy for the city centre. But, minus the trams, the city had a similar strategy some twenty and more years ago, and that never got anywhere. It now needs sensible tactics and determination to get the thing done.

First, city centre traffic. On Princes Street, only trams would run in both directions. General traffic would be excluded and cycles, taxis and buses would run east to west on the south side only. On George Street, general traffic would run west to east on the south side only. On both streets, the north side pavements would be extended to allow al fresco dining at peppercorn rents.

On Princes Street, the street architecture should face south to the sun and the gardens, which should be reconfigured along St Andrew Square lines. Adam Smith remarked that “easy taxes” were required for a prosperous economy. Yet city centre businesses bear a high rates burden, reflecting history and a need for reform ignored by both central and local government. The reality is that the internet, wider car ownership and free car parking at out-of-city centre developments, on top of restricted and high cost parking, have seriously undermined the competitive position of many city centre businesses. The dilemma of city centre traders will be compounded by the recent Scottish Budget which will result in an increase of some £56m in Edinburgh business rates by 2015-16. Any business rates revaluation will have to wait on 2017. But, if we are to revive our city centres, this must occur and result in a total business rate income which is fixed in money terms for a period of years – and which redistributes a significant part of the rates burden away from city centre businesses.

Some action is also necessary now if the trams are to help create a more favourable environment for city centre property owners, residents, businesses and visitors. The city’s policies must be sensitive to the interests of property owners because its powers are strictly limited. Planning controls the use of land and buildings, not the type of organisation which delivers the use, often, as in this case, an institution seeking a high rental income and a good covenant. Multiple retailers and, then, multiple food and drink operators have been preferred. Out of centre shopping has had more adverse impact on the former category, particularly for bulky, low value to weight ratio goods. There has been less impact on food and drink operators in city centres where the goods are consumed on the premises (table licenses only, please) but planning guidance should also encourage change of use for residential accommodation, offices and boutique hotels. Don’t complain that the former will reduce city income as that has already happened (reference Adam Smith again).

In the last 25 years a number of European cities have developed light rail systems. These offer high passenger capacity and share existing road space, allowing integration with the existing transport system. People can be persuaded to switch from cars or the buses to the trams as part of a network which can transport large numbers of residents and visitors on business, private or leisure visits, quickly and efficiently across and between the major residential, business, leisure and tourist destinations. The advice from Dublin is: “If Edinburgh compromises on the length of the tram route then it will become a white elephant and it will not deliver the benefit that it set out to do in the first place. The biggest problem in Edinburgh would arise from not completing it in full.”

The trams have been dubbed “Holyrood on Wheels” but although the construction of Holyrood was problematic, the majority of those visiting and working there seem quietly pleased by its eccentricity. The trams have proved very costly and tardy, but that can hardly be laid at the door of the Scottish Government. It was terrified that the project would go wrong and it might have to rescue it. This so happened, but the most difficult route is almost complete and the city must now deliver. Consult the Scottish Futures Trust. Make sure you know what you want and don’t chop and change your mind once a main contractor has been selected. Make sure the contractor understands your technical specifications and timetabling requirements. Provide a funding envelope, but do not depend on heavy penalties; instead provide a sensible bonus for completion on time and within budget. Think of this in stages:

Stage 1: To York Place. The city must stop talking about “next May or quicker if we can”. It can be done quickly, unless the city and Health and Safety are mired in bureaucracy. Set a target date before Christmas for carrying passengers, with free travel for a short period. Along with VisitScotland, the city will want to launch a marketing campaign in early 2014.

Stage 2: The one-way system should be settled down by Spring of 2015. Funding requires only a small portion of the planned increase in city business rates in 2014-15. Initial city centre business developments should have planning permission by the end of financial year 2014-15.

Stage 3: Deliver the tram route to Ocean Terminal/Newhaven in financial years 2015-6 and 2016-17. The capital cost might be some £100m, with a bonus for completion within time and budget. The increase in business rate income should be sufficient to fund this expenditure.

Stage 4: Settle on the route to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary complex. Ask the Scottish Government for some financial support which should only be delivered if the work is carried out within budget and to time (by end 2018-19). Edinburgh would then have a modern tram system worthy of the “Athens of the North”.
• Professor Sir Donald Mackay is a former chairman of Scottish Enterprise