My first contribution to Scot-Buzz following the summer break, says Ken, focussed on recent projections by the City of Edinburgh Council as to the cost of completing its tram line from York Place to the originally-projected terminus at Newhaven.
At the time I thought this was simply a gleam in the eye of the tramophile Lesley Hinds, the council’s transport convenor, but clearly I was wrong following last week’s majority vote in the City Chambers to agree, in principle, to go ahead.
Given the history, the decision seems unbelievable, especially as the public inquiry into the cost and physical over-runs of the truncated project has hardly started.
Others critics are placing emphasis on the dichotomy whereby a local authority in the process of seeking 2,000 redundancies and cutting essential services is even thinking about spending £162 million on three miles of tram track.
However from the Scot-Buzz perspective, the most pertinent issue is the effect on council-owned Lothian Buses – a rare example indeed of successful ‘municipal entrepreneurism’.
Following the many assurances that Lothian Buses – which provides the people of Edinburgh with a profitable, city-wide network – would not be raided to subsidise the tram service and maintenance costs, the council has declared a wish to partly fund the latest project through an ‘extraordinary dividend’ from the bus company.
The next step is to ask Lothian Buses what effect handing over the money would have, as if the answer isn’t already staring councillors in the face: less money for fleet renewal, higher fares, job cuts and a reduced level of service.
Consequently, an eventual sale to a private operator cannot be ruled out, inevitably leading to a loss of local control and unique local branding and livery with which the public identifies.
Reaching the outskirts of Edinburgh by car after a holiday, the familiar sight of a madder-and-white Lothian Bus sends out the reassuring message that you are almost home – in contrast to Glasgow, where the vehicles of the principal operator (the corporate First Bus) look no different from those in Leeds, Bradford, Portsmouth, Bristol and several other English cities.
Interviewed on radio prior to the council vote, Lesley Hinds placed emphasis on having delivered the tram line “to the revised budget and the revised time-scale” – as if the years of disfigurement to the city centre, the 50 per cent cost over-run and the limited end product (eight miles of main line rather than the 11 miles plus a 2.5-mile spur as promised) did not happen.
With delusional attitudes such as this, who knows where it will end?
Council leader Andrew Burns was quoted in the press as saying that “if we get a formal reply that the extraordinary dividend request will somehow significantly damage the bus company, we’re not going to do that (i.e. take the ‘dividend’).”
Although more than 91 per cent owned by the City of Edinburgh Council, Lothian Buses is an arm’s length company required by law to operate independently of the parent body: so should its directors conclude the dividend ‘request’ will inflict serious damage, they have a fiduciary duty to say so.