It is now just two weeks until the final decision is made on whether Edinburgh Trams is extended to Newhaven via Leith Walk with the full council due to vote on the issue on Thursday 14th March. The past few days have again seen plenty written and said on the topic with the possible decision seemingly swaying one way and then the other. The Liberal Democrats – holding six seats on the council – have come out against the tram to join with the Conservatives in their sentiments – although for different reasons – but just when you thought that might be a major blow for the scheme the Transport and Environment Committee met and backed the extension!
As was planned the City of Edinburgh Council’s Transport and Committee have met to discuss the issue and they have backed the proposal sending a recommendation to the full council that they approve it at a full council meeting due to take place on 14th March. Despite this backing that isn’t to say that everyone was in agreement with both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives on this committee expressing concerns, but obviously enough members were in favour enabling it to go on to the next stage of the approval process.
Speaking of those against the proposal and shortly before the latest meeting the Liberal Democrats confirmed that they were not in favour of the extension at this time with several fears expressed. They feel that before any decision is made the results of the Tram Inquiry should be heard and acted upon first. In addition the Lib Dems don’t believe that the council have shown how the extension will link in with other public transport improvements in the city and are concerned over the impact of Brexit on the Final Business Case and whether the assumptions included will turn out to be correct.
Cllr Robert Aldridge, Liberal Democrat group leader, was quoted in the Edinburgh Evening News: “This has been an extremely difficult decision for us to take. However, after scrutinising the final business case and reflecting on all the different issues, we do not believe this is the right time to extend the tram. Given the problems with building the original line, I think people in Edinburgh expect us to wait for the independent inquiry to report before we press ahead with any extension. We need to be able to look our constituents in the eye and say we learned all the lessons from the inquiry report. We simply cannot do that yet.”
During the committee meeting, Cllr Lesley Macinnes, Transport Convener, said: “This project is one of the most important things we can do for this city. The tram can be a major player in providing what the city requires. This is a process that has been done well.”
Advice at the meeting also urged against delaying the project as it would increase costs with contractors having to be paid whilst the results of the inquiry were waited for and it would also be difficult to retain the advisory team during this hiatus.
Concerns have also been expressed by community leaders about safety aspects of the tram with some claiming that Constitution Street was too narrow for trams to run. Despite this the committee members voted to recommend the plan for approval.
The next stage will looking for full Council approval. Currently the Council is run by a coalition of the Scottish National Party and Labour. The SNP has 17 seats with Labour having 12 (a total of 29 councillors). The Conservatives then have 17 seats and the Liberal Democrats six (23 councillors) – both sets of whom have said they are against the tram. The rest of the council is made up of the Scottish Greens (eight councillors) and independents (three councillors). Some independents have previously come out against the tram and even the Greens spoke out against the tram in the Committee meeting with concerns regarding the financial risk to Lothian Buses. If councillors vote along party lines (with the coalition in favour, Conservatives and Lib Dems against) then the independents and Greens could well be the deciding force in the final vote.
Meanwhile after several months of silence the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry have released s statement but it gives no clue as to when we might hear some results – some nine months since the public hearings concluded. It would seem Lord Hardie is still considering all the evidence and is not yet in a position to release his report. The press release from the Inquiry was in fact a denial that they have been talking to the Trams to Newhaven project team (as alluded to in a recent newspaper article).
In the statement the Edinburgh Trams Inquiry said: “In a recent news article considering the business case for the Newhaven tram extension, it was stated the Tram Inquiry has engaged with the City of Edinburgh Council to make sure it ‘can cover every eventuality’. For the avoidance of doubt, the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry has had no discussions with the City of Edinburgh Council about the tram extension, or any eventuality in relation to it, as the tram extension does not fall within the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.”
The decision of Councillors whether to press ahead with the extension will have to be made without the Inquiry results and for that we only have a couple weeks to go – and with all the conjecture in the press and parties playing politics over it who can say whether they will go with their own committee’s recommendation or not?