Lesley Hinds, transport convener for Edinburgh City Council discusses the lessons to be learned from one of Scotland’s most controversial – and delayed – new public transport projects. The city’s new tram system finally opened three years late on 31 May 2014 and is now operating between York Place in the city centre and Edinburgh Airport.
Beset with disruption, bitter disputes, and angry traders, the project was not only late but came in at double the budget and with only half the originally planned network being realised. So great has been the outcry for answers as to what went wrong that last week Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, ordered a judge-led inquiry to investigate.
In the meantime we spoke to Councillor Lesley Hinds, who shared her personal views, not only on what went wrong, but how in the past two years the ailing project has been dramatically turned around. Some of her insights are gold dust to other cities thinking of commissioning a new tram system whilst avoiding the same pitfalls.
To start with, as is so often the case, the news isn’t all bad. Cllr Hinds reports that in their first week on the tracks, the new trams have attracted some 130,000 passengers. On one day alone 27,000 people used the new transport system (although admittedly it was partly down to boy band, One Direction, performing in town).
Edinburgh’s tram system was granted funding by the Scottish Parliament to the tune of £500 million in 2007. The City Council formed an arms-length company called Transport in Edinburgh (TIE) to manage the project. TIE then appointed Bilfinger Berger/Siemens as main contractor.
Off the rails
Things soon went badly wrong and a protracted and entrenched dispute arose between the two. At one point, the roads were up and the contractor’s tools were down, while local businesses complained of resulting financial losses and even closure.
We asked Cllr Hinds what caused the problems. “In my personal opinion there were three reasons. The first and main one was the contract [between TIE and Bilfinger Berger/Siemens] which I believe was flawed. It was not detailed enough.
“In my experience, with any large project, if you want to ensure its success, all the details must be sorted out, everything must be tied down, before you sign a contract with any contractor. What happened in this case is that the contract then started to change after it had been signed. So I think there are many lessons to be learned from that.”
Cllr Hinds cites political conflict as the second reason, as at that time local government was a coalition between Liberal Democrats who were pro the Edinburgh tram project, and the SNP who were against. This, she feels, meant that no-one had outright control.
And it didn’t stop at local level. Cllr Hinds continues, “Thirdly, there was a change in administration of the Scottish government where the SNP came into minority control following a vote. Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems, and Greens voted to approve the £500 million to be spent on the Edinburgh trams, carried against the minority SNP administration. As a result, the Scottish government then withdrew the Transport Scotland government agency’s experts and advisors from the project. So what you had was the government signing off the money but then having no direct supervision or input.”
A change in approach
After all the stalling, the project did finally gather steam over the past two years. We asked Cllr Hinds how and why this happened, and, unsurprisingly, it all came down to improved communication. “About two years ago [around the same time Cllr Hinds became the new transport convener] a new chief executive, Sue Bruce, came into the council as a new appointment. One of the tasks she was given by all the councillors was obviously to sort out the tram project, which had come to a total impasse.
“She convened a meeting. Key councillors and the contractor sat down together for at least a week and they came up with a proposal that they both signed up for. That mediation has led to a very, very structured process of any decision-making or dealing any disputes on either side. If there’s a dispute there is a clear way of taking it through process at regular twice-weekly meetings. It stops things festering. It’s put on the table and gets resolved.”
Two years ago, Cllr Hinds was given a revised budget that raised the figure to £776 million* – which has been kept to – and a revised schedule to open the tramline in summer 2014. As she points out, they’ve managed to open slightly earlier, and she credits the strict structure and process they now work within for this.
And what of the retailers and businesses that suffered along the way? Might things start to improve for them now? Cllr Hinds says, “Yes. There is evidence that people are already starting to come back into the city centre. Even those that didn’t want the tram initially are thinking that now it’s here they’ll use it and just get on with it and seem reasonably happy.
“However, you can’t underestimate the damage done to the reputation of the city of Edinburgh.” To help address this, a £1 million campaign named ‘This is Edinburgh’ was launched last February to promote the city’s attractions and encourage people back into the centre after the tram disruption.
Finally, we asked Cllr Hinds what her advice would be to other cities considering a tram system. She replies, “Listen to others who have done it, find out and learn. There will always be disruption when you’re putting in an on-road system, so think about ways of mitigating that and keeping businesses and people on-side. And bear in mind, some people will just be anti-tram whatever happens, although once they’re up and running that can change completely!” Nice in the south of France and Ireland’s capital, Dublin are both good examples of this particular phenomenon.
“But probably the most important point, to me, is the contract – communication between contractor and client – and to get all-party support if possible. Manchester didn’t face anything like the challenges we’ve had to because they had backing from all sides from the outset.”
* Edinburgh City Council financed the additional funds through a loan it will pay interest on for the next 30 years. Taking into account this interest, the total cost of the tram project is estimated to be nearer £1 billion.
Written by Gail Taylor