BBC, Bilfinger Berger, bloody trams, Corruption, Councillor Gordon Mackenzie, David Miller, Democracy, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Trams, Jenny Dawe, John Swinney, Local Democracy, Lothian Buses, Opinion, Politics, Public Transport, Scottish National Party, SNP, The Great Tram Disaster, Tram Lines, Trams, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh
Tychy has just returned from a holiday in the Baltic republics prejudiced anew against Edinburgh’s forthcoming tramlines. Latvia has convinced me that trams look more at home rattling about within the shadows of Soviet architecture, than they do carving up our beautiful garden city (unless Edinburgh’s trams are installed to endlessly encircle the hideous St James Centre.) In any event, the appearance of Edinburgh’s trams currently seems more remote a prospect than that of a Communist revolution; and until a People’s Court brings the Enemies of the People to justice, the nearest thing that we have to any explanation of the fiasco is David Miller‘s BBC Scotland Investigates programme, “The Great Tram Disaster.”
At the beginning of his report, Miller tracks down a single forlorn tram, which is now rotting abandoned in a depot outside Edinburgh. “As I look at this solitary tram,” Miller muses, like Pip awed by Miss Havisham, “it’s a reminder of just how long I have been covering this story.” I once met a girl at a party who was coming to the end of completing a four-year PHD on the personal correspondence of Philip Larkin. Miller must be feeling the same numb despair. He later shows us a copy of the TIE [Transport Initiatives for Edinburgh] contract, which has been spread out on a boardroom table in about 30 separate booklets, running to thousands of pages. One’s blood chills at the thought that Miller may have actually read it all.
“The Great Tram Disaster” is certainly a great piece of journalism, which procures a number of fine scoops, not least by getting over the barbed wire of the project’s confidentiality clauses. The average taxpayer will watch this programme wanting to know who should be executed, and if the show roundly answers “everybody,” it seems that the drawing and quartering should be preserved for the lawyers. Edinburgh Council’s specialist not-for-profit company TIE and the chief contractor Bilfinger Berger made the beast with two backs through a contract which, although gigantic, failed to sufficiently define the responsibilities of either party. As neither TIE nor private finance were ever going to volunteer to pay the bills, the endless deadlocks were broken by lengthy and expensive appeals to “independent adjudicators.” TIE invariably lost.
Despite Miller’s rather corny suggestion that the boardroom was “too male” and that they needed a bossy matron to come and sort them out, the apparent “crisis” actually suited everybody fine. TIE was a political project without any political leadership, and in the absence of councillors who were prepared to articulate and pursue an exciting new vision for public transport in Edinburgh, power fell into the hands of arbitrary corporate adventurers.
There was no breathtaking, audacious act of corruption, but rather the onward encroach of a soft, sweet fog of corruption. The city acquired an extra-governmental, not-for-profit, job-creation scheme in which managers were paid huge salaries, and lawyers earned big fees, by sitting about in plush offices and debating the progress of their single, dreary tramline. Nobody was genuinely determined that the tramline should be finished and the project drifted listlessly, but always anchored in a fundamentally dysfunctional contract which ensured that no progress could ever be made.
Miller’s report indicates that everybody connected with the tram project was undoubtedly aware that it was deadlocked, but that for years they remained content to haggle over details, rather than to dispense with the whole contract. Confidentiality here acted as a sort of anaesthetic, reducing everybody to numb impassivity. It allowed TIE to blame/slander the contractors without any right of reply and the contractors to charge any fee which they had plucked out of the air. It allowed the CEC and the SNP government to simultaneously blame TIE and insist that only TIE had the wherewithal to make decisions. Particularly irksome is the sight of the SNP finance minister John Swinney speaking sternly about his disappointment in Everybody Else, as if he was a headmaster whose unattended pupils had let down the school. A word which is conspicuously missing from Miller’s report is “Jenny,” whilst another is “Dawes,” and it is bizarrely indicative of the lack of leadership which characterised this project that the head of the council is never mentioned once in the entire programme.
Everybody had conspired to agree that nobody was more to blame than anybody else, but unfortunately one of the slower chaps had not caught on. The Lib Dem on the TIE board – the perpetually apologetic Gordon Mackenzie – is generous enough to disclose to Miller that he was too dim to supervise an engineering project:
I mean, I have a social work background… err, others have electronics, banking management, that sort of thing. We were not people who had previously had experience of major projects like this. We didn’t have legal expertise for example – I don’t think there was anybody on the board with that sort of expertise, so as a board, did we have the right skill mix to properly supervise? I look back and… my feeling is that we probably didn’t have the right skill mix. Not to say that any individual was lacking in a particular way, but… I think we were put together for political purposes as much as anything else.
Did he not have a go at acquiring the necessary “skills”? Or resign his position? Or scream to shatter the spell? Perhaps Mackenzie’s role was essentially that of gormless yes-man – “for political purposes” – and this position did not require any relevant “skills.”
But if a managerial political class was generally to blame for the disaster, then this is a very satisfying conclusion. Miller ends his report by interviewing stoically-cheerful commuters who chuckle with exasperation at the mess, but surely the electorate cannot escape responsibility for the actions of their representatives? In the coming years, Edinburgh’s taxpayers will be hit by rising council tax bills and cuts to council services, but the costs of the tram project are hardly a surprise – indeed, they have been climbing steadily and predictably over a course of years. Decisions about the tram project were not made on the moon by extraterrestrials, but in Edinburgh by elected politicians who enjoyed the unquestioning support – or lack of organised resistance – of the people themselves.
Received wisdom about the “Edinburgh Tram Disaster” narrates that the city quite reasonably aspired to install some modest tramlines, and that only the escalating costs of the project turned the city into a “laughing stock,” adding to a catalogue of famous Scottish financial disasters which includes the Scottish Parliament, the National Monument, and the Darien Scheme. Yet the spectacle of a capital city scrapping its entire tram network, only to start building it again fifty years later, was massively silly from the offset.
The ambition of herding more people on to public transport is commendable, but it is absurd to think that one can achieve this by merely introducing more forms of public transport. It is self-evident that whatever means there are of getting from A to B must be as cheap as possible (and Tychy is the sort of old-fashioned socialist who believes that public transport should be flatly free.) Yet in Edinburgh, endlessly rising bus fares are accepted as a part of Nature, and the readiest solution to TIE’s haemorrhage of cash has been to dip into the revenues of Lothian Buses, producing a vicious cycle of rising bus fares and alienated commuters.
Nobody would show political leadership – either to champion the trams and determine their success, or to damn the trams and champion an alternative vision for public transport. Ignored by the public and obscured by politicians, the resulting vacuum was filled by anarchy, piracy, and a deplorable loss of initiative. “The Edinburgh Tram Disaster” is ultimately a fable of failed local democracy. Taxpayers cannot remain disinterested in local politics and then complain at being the victims of it. Edinburgh’s electorate resemble passengers who had agreed to a ride without troubling to wonder where it was going, and who are now indignant that they are marooned in the middle of nowhere.