Martin Hannan: Tram vote was derailed by fear

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So the people of Aberdeen have spoken and they will soon see their city centre transformed by the City Garden Project, which will alter the area around Union Street and Union Terrace for ever.

The majority of 4000 in favour of the £140 million redevelopment was less than ten per cent of the votes, but the result of 45,301 in favour of the project against 41,175 opposed was at least clear cut.

Secure in the knowledge that they have a mandate, Aberdeen Council can now proceed with the development.

Contrast and compare, please, with the situation here in Edinburgh regarding the single biggest development affecting much of the city.

My own party, the SNP, which opposed the trams project from the outset, called for a referendum on whether the trams should continue last June, and I still think that was the correct way ahead.

The other parties on the council conspired to deny the people of Edinburgh the chance to have their say on whether the scheme should continue.

I’m not at a loss as to why they did so. They knew a referendum would veto the trams and were not prepared to entertain the possibility that their pet project would be shot down by the people. Heaven forfend that the electorate should actually decide something – can’t have those who know best being bested by the people. . .

No doubt the Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Labour and Green groups will say that you can’t have a referendum on every issue that comes along, and I quite agree.

Democracy means that we elect people to run the city, based on the policies and manifestos on which they campaigned. Our elected members usually just get on with things as they must, taking soundings from the voters as they should but without regular referenda.

Except, that is, for huge undertakings which fundamentally alter the nature of the city and for which there is no mandate from the voters – that is the key point which Aberdeen Council accepted, and kudos to them for having the courage to go ahead with their referendum.

Everyone surely accepts that there will be changing situations, such as economic collapses, and in a democracy politicians have to be trusted to make decisions according to the core beliefs for which they stand – trusted being the operative word in that sentence.

The trouble is that, with the trams, the situation grew so far out of control that no group – except the SNP which opposed them – was able to claim that they had serious public support for their stance on the trams.

The public saw the disaster happening in front of their eyes and trusted all the politicians to fix it, but they did not do so.

There was a breakdown of trust, largely because there was no clear mandate for the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and Green councillors to do what they did.

When the inquiry takes place, one of the big questions that must be put to the politicians is why they did not let the public decide the fate of the trams project. It will be interesting to hear the answers, not least because there was a previous referendum in the city not so long ago and therefore the council actually had a track record of consulting the citizenry on massive city-changing proposals.

Back in 2005, you may recall that the council held a referendum regarding the introduction of congestion charging, and the proposal included the use of money from the congestion charge to fund the trams. So in a sense, there was a referendum on the trams – and they were voted down.

While many thought the referendum was a waste of money, most people thought it was a worthwhile exercise to gauge public opinion on what was literally a city-changing project for which the council did not have a mandate.

Believe me, there are still people in the council who can’t believe they lost that referendum. One prominent Green at the time later called the whole referendum “foolish” because they didn’t get the answer they wanted.

Most councillors, it should be said, were mightily glad to be relieved of the responsibility so, since quite a lot of them stayed in office into the next term, why did they not go to the people again on a project that was even more transformational for Edinburgh and much, much more expensive?

I suspect that, if they give true answers – and the inquiry’s respondents will be on oath with all the risks of perjury for fibbers – they will have to say that they simply didn’t trust the people to give the “correct” answer.

They may argue that the decision was initially taken off them by the Scottish Parliament, where again only the SNP said no to the trams. But the parliament gave the go-ahead to a scheme based on figures and projections that turned out to be a load of codswallop.

That is why there should have been a referendum last year – the situation changed so much that no one had the mandate to go ahead with the project.

Many people in Edinburgh are looking at Aberdeen with envy this week, thinking: “At least they got their say.”

Come the May elections, I hope the people will remember which parties denied them that say.