The politics of trams

So the Council has decided that the tram line should run only as far as Haymarket in the west of the city.

This was the preferred option of only 25 councillors – Labour and Tories combined – out of the 58 in total.  So it can hardly be said to command the confidence of the Council.  However, the remarkable decision by the SNP Group to sit on its hands and abstain, despite being part of the ruling Administration, means that the Labour/Tory option won the day.

Council officials recommended borrowing additional money to continue the line through the city centre to St. Andrews Square.  Although this would cost more up front, it would raise more in fares and therefore be able to generate an operating surplus.  The Haymarket option is projected to have significant continuing losses on a day to day basis.  So the council staff are now faced with negotiating a new contract within a few days and one which will result in a service which will cost the city money long after any loan is repaid.

The Green councillors put forward their own motion, backing the St. Andrews Square option but seeking greater clarity on costs and risks.  When that motion fell it was only natural for the Greens to side with the Liberal Democrats in backing St. Andrews Square.  That is the option which has emerged as having the greatest policy justification, although I suspect the Liberal Democrats, as the lead group in the City Council, will still feel public anger over the wider project management which has been chaotic.

But rational policy choices are hardly where we are at now.  The Labour–Tory move is everything to do with positioning ahead of next May’s council elections and nothing to do with what is best for the city.  Judging by some of the immediate reaction they may have misjudged the public mood.

There’s a vocal minority in the city that signs up to the slogan “Scrap the trams”.  There might have been a time for scrapping but it was a long time ago – 3 or 4 years, at least.  It is not a sensible choice now.  Far more prevalent is the view “Let’s build the damn thing!” Even those who are sceptical about trams – and there’s no shortage of those in Edinburgh at the moment – realise that scrapping makes no sense and the Haymarket option is simply neither one thing nor the other.

So where does that leave the SNP?  Today’s Evening News had SNP leader, Steve Cardownie on its front page, made up as a clown, along with the Labour, Lib Dem and Tory leaders, but went on to argue that the SNP might reap the benefits of its anti-trams stance next May.  I don’t think the people of Edinburgh are so easily fooled.  They know that, in 2007, the SNP chose to go into power and stay in power with the Lib Dems, fully understanding that delivery of trams would be key to how the Administration was judged.  Last week, the City Centre by-election campaign illustrated that the voters saw through SNP posturing.  As candidates fell by the wayside through the voting rounds, the SNP benefited from the anti-tram candidate’s second votes no more than the Greens did and much less than the pro-tram Tories.  It is time for the SNP Group to grow up and accept that with power comes responsibility.

And it’s important to take the long view.  The way the project has been mismanaged is damaging for public confidence, of course, but, sadly, it is not alone. From the M74 extension to the Scottish Parliament building and, of course, a whole litany of MOD contracts, we seem to struggle with major capital projects.  I take some comfort from friends in Nottingham, Sheffield and Dublin who speak of similar woes in each of their respective tram projects but few would look back now.

Something tells me that we have not reached the end of the line yet.