Tram referendum call - 'Who'll deny the people the decisive say?'

THE SNP's call for a referendum on whether or not to continue with the city's tram project is a key moment in this long-running and often embarrassing saga.

Pro-tram campaigners will dismiss it as a gimmick, but consulting the people is the right thing to do.

Of course, there are arguments against a referendum - not least the cost. But, sad to say, the likely price is a drop in the ocean compared with the sums that have already been wasted on the scheme.

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Then there's the time it would take. But, again, we are already years behind schedule and the council is planning a pause until after September anyway, in the (surely forlorn) hope that more money might be found in the Scottish Government's spending programme.

With an up-to-date electoral roll fresh from the Holyrood elections, it should be possible to organise and run a city-wide referendum in the time available.

The debate around the poll would focus minds and allow all sides to make their case afresh. The News, which has been an increasingly critical friend of the project, would open its pages to all points of view before deciding whether or not we believe our support can be sustained.

Most of all, a binding result would let us all move on, either by giving the council the authority to spend the extra money needed to deliver the trams (almost certainly paid for by civic borrowing) or forcing it to call a halt and return the city to some sense of normality.

There is only one reason why tram supporters might oppose a referendum - and that is the fear of a similar public rejection to the 2002 plebiscite which blew apart plans for a congestion charge.

Such supporters will have been spooked by yesterday's News survey which found 78.6 per cent of our readers are opposed to the current plans.

But that is no excuse for not letting the people have their say in a wider poll. Deputy leader Steve Cardownie and his SNP group are therefore right - and indeed brave - to demand a referendum.

As the self-proclaimed "anti-tram" party they are undoubtedly showing some political astuteness too, positioning themselves clearly at odds with their Lib Dem coalition partners and the pro-tram opposition parties.

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Mr Cardownie and his colleagues will no doubt remind voters of that position come next May's local authority elections.

That should focus the minds of councillors of all parties when they are asked on Thursday if they want to deny the people a decisive say on this, the most important matter facing Edinburgh today.