Scottish council elections: Trams saga and repairs scandal awaits for Edinburgh victors

Tramworks have brought swathes of Edinburgh city centre to a standstill. Picture: TSPL
Tramworks have brought swathes of Edinburgh city centre to a standstill. Picture: TSPL
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In Edinburgh, whoever takes power today will have a challenge on their hands. Brian Ferguson looks at two significant issues for the new administration to deal with.

Whoever takes charge of the City Chambers in Edinburgh will find two fairly substantial clouds hanging over the historic civic headquarters on the Royal Mile.

The blame game over who is responsible for the handling of the tram project - which is already running more than five years later with a price tag that has more than doubled - and alleged corruption, mismanagement and fraud within its property repairs service will run and run.

But with a damaging public inquiry looming over the next couple of years over the former, and the prospect of several court cases surrounding the latter, there is likely to be little hiding place for whoever is in charge.

Five years ago, when Labour was ousted from power by a coalition between the Lib Dems and the SNP, there were dire warnings about whether the new alliance would successfully deliver the tram project, given the Nationalists’ well-known opposition to the scheme.

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Little did the critics know exactly how badly wrong the tram project would go. With the SNP at both the City Chambers and Holyrood washing their hands of the project, the lack of scrutiny of cost over-runs and the handling of a protracted dispute with contractors was to haunt the city - and continues to do so.

Despite completed tram vehicles lining up at the costly depot at Gogarburn, large swathes of the city are completely dominated by tramworks, with areas like Haymarket and Shandwick Place expected to bear the brunt well into next year.

Despite much-hyped claims that the project is now ahead of schedule and coming in on budget, the reality is that when trams do start running, in the summer of 2014 at the earliest, they will go no further than the city centre, despite the initial phase being proposed to run to the key waterfront areas of Leith, Newhaven and Granton.

Finding the funding to finish off the first phase of the tram and drawing up a strategy to produce the full network that was envisaged only a few short years ago is likely to prove a huge challenge - particularly with the Scottish Government insisting that its £500 million grant for the project is firmly capped.

If there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel over the tram project the same cannot be said about the crisis which has engulfed the council’s property repairs service.

Some 18 months after police were called in to investigate mounting evidence of illegal activity in the property conservation division, the revelations and allegations continue to mount up.

At least seven staff have been sacked to date over claims that have never been disclosed, the manager of the property conservation section has resigned and a further dozen staff are still suspended.

The new council will have to decide how much to release from a secret report compiled by consultants brought in to oversee the council’s investigations.

More seriously, a separate police inquiry is still ongoing and is widely expected to lead to a number of criminal charges. Insiders at the City Chambers say they expect the saga to be rumbling on well after Edinburgh’s trams finally get rolling.