Leaders: Edinburgh tram inquiry | Lego independence

Tens of thousands packed the initial runs last weekend. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Tens of thousands packed the initial runs last weekend. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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After years of chaos, soaring costs, frustrating delays, damage to city businesses and constant disruption, a sigh of relief can be breathed that the capital’s trams are running at last.

Tens of thousands packed the initial runs last weekend, but Sue Bruce, the city council’s chief executive, was rightly quick to stamp on any hint of triumphalism.

The tramline can hardly be called a “system” or a “network”. It has been pared back to one east-west line to the city airport. The truncated line is unlikely ever to pay its way. And as for the £776 million cost – a multiple of the initial figure – the bulk of this has come from the Scottish Government.

First Minister Alex Salmond had thus every justification to remind the Scottish Parliament yesterday that the tram works have caused enormous disruption and have cost businesses in the capital dearly. Not to mention the cost to the city’s reputation. He also announced that there will be a judge-led inquiry into the debacle. One advantage of such an inquiry is that it will be quicker and less costly than a full-blown public inquiry. However, it will still run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. And the question that has to be asked is, what public gain will be achieved by such an exercise now that the trams are up and running and carrying paying passengers.

Ms Bruce has done a commendable job in moving the council on from its legal gridlock with the contractors and bringing the trauma of the trams to a working conclusion. Long shelves in the council’s offices bend under the weight of the hundreds of reports, assessments and analyses of what went wrong at so many stages of this project. And the public’s memory of the pain and disruption will be long.

Of course it is well-nigh impossible to arrive at a costing of such an ambitious project in advance of the actual work. But woe betide any politician who now dares to advance an “eye-catching new initiative” or “bold vision to take the city forward” without an exhaustive appraisal of likely cost and consequence. Scotland has now had two rude awakenings on the capacity of seemingly straightforward projects to blow up in the faces of their promoters – the Holyrood parliament and now the trams. If lessons have not already been well learnt from these searing experiences, it is doubtful that they ever will. There is little that a judge-led inquiry is likely to unearth or recommend that is not already well kent.

The facts are the money has been spent, it is gone, and for that we have one line. It is extremely unlikely that anybody will be seriously looking at extending the line in to a network any time soon. The businesses damaged by the project are either beyond repair or in the process of recovery. After six years of city centre roadworks the city needs to work at boosting its tourist trade. The inquiry will achieve nothing except wasting more public money.

Mushy peas? The sauce of it!

Does resort to Lego figures by the UK Treasury to illustrate how it thinks Scotland would be better off staying with the United Kingdom demean the independence referendum debate – and indeed Scots as a whole? Whatever next – colouring books and crayons from the competing camps to help us grasp fluctuating North Sea oil revenues and the implications for the Barnett Formula?

Some will doubtless take offence at the portrayal of Scots as Lego figures. But this is not a heavy statement on the existential condition of Scotland or some abstruse post-modern allegory. It is meant to be light-hearted, and even the over-use of red-haired Lego figures should be treated as a humorous and innocently-intended sketch. Patronising? Possibly, but has the intensity of the referendum debate so stripped us of our ability to take a joke?

We will even forgive the references to pies, chips and multiple hot dog ingestion, and have a wry smile at the very thoughtful inclusion of sun cream to protect our delicate skins while on holiday. This is a creative and tongue-in-cheek way to illustrate a few points. They almost pulled it off. But they didn’t.

Where they let themselves down, the very annoying bit, is the reference to mushy peas with the fish and chips. Not something readily seen as a Scottish tradition or part of our culture. No, they are almost always associated with Northern England.

So there it is, the revelation that someone in the Treasury has just, probably subconsciously, lumped all Northerners together. How very London. Illustrate it with a small Lego figure limping off with a gunshot wound to the foot.