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politics. edinburgh trams. John Swinney. Edinburgh Council.

Tramageddon: Swinney steps in.

   What is infuriating about the people who are supposedly running the civic administration of Scotland’s capital city, is that they seem unable to accept responsibility for their actions.  After the Finance Secretary, John Swinney, refused to accept their plan to pay three quarters of a billion on a tram service that goes nowhere near any of Edinburgh’s population, and has already caused three years of disruption, they eagerly voted down their own decision of only ten days ago. Oh yes, they said collectively, it was a ludicrous proposal and none of us had anything to do with it.  It was all the other lot.  I’m beginning to wonder if the only way to get someone to take charge is to bring in a mayor.  At least then the council tax payers of Edinburgh would at least know whom to blame. 

We can’t go on like this.  The threader reputation of Scottish civic governance has finally disintegrated following the Edinburgh trams fiasco.   Local democracy has been brought into disrepute by incompetent councillors and overpaid officials.   Hundreds of millions of public money has been wasted on a vanity project at a time when the public sector is facing an unprecedented financial squeeze.   From the start the tram project has been grossly mishandled by almost everyone involved.   If this were China, they’d probably be shot. 

   Now, in a move more in keeping with that authoritarian regime, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, has  effectively abolished local government in Edinburgh by ordering the elected members – including his own SNP councillors – to reverse a majority vote of the council taken  last week to halt the tram lines at Haymarket.  Few would criticise Mr Swinney for baulking at a ludicrous and loss-making plan that would force passengers to get off the trams 2 miles short of their destination.  But he may live to regret putting his reputation on the  tram line since the cost of extending itto St Andrews Square is almost certain to cost over a billion pounds – and it now has his name on it.

    The councillors will wash their hands, grumbling about central interference.  The contractors will rub their hands at the prospect of loading hundreds more millions of pounds onto the cost.  The officials will get to work producing further mounds of worthless paper and rearranging committees. The whole project will stagger on into motion again, crushing yet more small businesses, alienating voters, turning Edinburgh into an international byword for incompetent public procurement.  The only upside of the tram fiasco, as one MSP put it to me last week, is that it makes the Holyrood parliament building look like value for money by comparison. 

    The reason so many public sector projects like this go so disastrously wrong is that there is no clear line of accountability and culpability.   No one is to blame.  No one pays any penalty.  Why should they worry; it’s not their money after all.  Civic administrations are suckers for fancy projects like trams.  Their  officials show them glossy brochures and take them on trips to Seville and Amsterdam where they see trams trundling along sunny streets and they decide that they want them too.  It’s like having your own big train set.  The councillors then get their officials to provide fantasy figures to justify the project. This is handed it over to arms length organisations like TIE who are taken to the cleaners by the private contractors.  Then everyone runs for cover.  

   In theory, of course,  the elected members are collectively responsible, but in councils like Edinburgh accountability is blurred by coalition.  Edinburgh is run by shifting alliances of parties led by nonentities.  The hapless Jenny Dawe, the leader of the Lib-Nat coalition in Edinburgh, is a well-meaning individual totally out of her depth who behaves like an innocent bystander at a car crash.   She clearly feels no sense of personal responsibility for what happens on her watch, because she can always blame her coalition partners, or the other lot, or Bilfinger Berger.  

    There is an alternative to this. In the past, I have been instinctively resistant to the idea of elected mayors on the grounds that they encourage headstrong individuals impatient with democracy to gain power through media projection.   An elected mayor diminishes the status of the  council and can reduce the elected members to the role of spectators in a cult of personality.   But I can see no other way to improve the quality of civic administration, and provide something resembling effective leadership to Scotland’s cities.   With a mayor, there is at least somewhere for the buck to stop.  If Edinburgh had a mayor, he or she would be under immense personal pressure to ensure that projects like the tram actually work. They have nowhere to hide. 

     London has only had mayors since 2000, but it is already impossible to imagine the city without a high-profile civic leader.   It has been effective too:  the congestion charge was a prime candidate for local government mismanagement (a referendum on congestion charging was spectacularly mismanaged by Edinburgh in 2005)  but Ken Livingstone succeeded, largely through the force of his personality, in introducing a workable system that is now part of the fabric of London life and provides revenue for other transport projects.  Boris Johnson now has his bicycles and his Routemaster buses – and at least the voters know who to blame if they don’t work.  

      Mayors provide an essential element of accountability to prestige projects because their names are on them.  They can’t shuffle responsibility off to other members of a coalition, and they can’t blame opposition parties when things go wrong. Elected mayors also provide an element of continuity.  They know that they will have to see a project through to its completion.  Mayors have personal authority that ordinary councillors lack.  If local government officials don’t give them reliable cost forecasts, or keep them in the dark, a mayor has the power to remove them from their comfy offices.  Councillors feel intimidated and inferior to officials, not least because of the latters’ high salaries. We are left with gormless councillors on Newsnight blaming bad decisions on “the numbers we were given at the time” .  Well, if they aren’t given the right numbers, sack the number crunchers. 

  The position of mayor is, by virtue of its visibility, likely to attract more resilient and imaginative candidates for local government leadership, like Margo MacDonald who might have been a prime candidate for Edinburgh mayor in times past.   Yes,  it might also attract publicity-seekers and careerists, but that has been a problem for democracy ever since it was invented.  Local government in Scotland is in such a desperate state, that almost anything would be preferable to the current arrangements which have alienated the voters and brought financial ruin to great cities like Edinburgh and Aberdeen. 

    Local government is dying in Scotland, as turnout falls and central government increasingly diverts the local revenue and tells councils what to do.  The only thing that will keep local government alive is democratic engagement – the active support of the people. The voters of Edinburgh are sick of mediocrity and desperate for leadership – so let’s give it to them. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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