Have we just simply forgotten how to build big projects?

was reading yesterday a piece in The Economist about a capital city transport project that went 6 times over budget; runs 5 years late and still has not opened, mainly because of the 66000 [ correct! ] recorded building errors. And that, of course, is in Berlin, the new [ or will be new ]airport.

And then I went to sit in on the first day of public hearings for the Edinburgh Trams Enquiry.

I also attended part of the second day, when there were even fewer of us in the public seats, two people today. I have written about the trams project before – and started to write more through interviews etc – although this chain of research rapidly seized up once the official judicial enquiry was launched .

Since the web site does not yet appear to have full public access to documents and papers, I wanted to record my impression while it is fresh in my mind, and without the benefit of transcripts . My reason is that from the statements and questioning I have heard to date, and media reports, it seems the enquiry will cover some interesting ground, though even at this stage, I very much doubt that Lord Hardie and his team will find any smoking gun, or at least any gun with fingerprints on it.

There are lots of people there; the enquiry legal team and two rows of interested parties, tucked behind desks, with screens in front of them showing a near instantaneous evidence transcription – of much better quality than BBC subtitles by the way . The other screens are used to show blown up extracts from the enormous library of documents that the enquiry has assembled.

There are also some curious legacy arrangements still preferred by some to the digital materials . One man amongst the interested parties is surrounded by a veritable wall of files in filing boxes. From one angle it looks like the climactic battle in ‘Zulu’ a barricade of paper and card next to him.

Much of the questioning has focused on a really interesting area; the degree to which the council – as many others – relied on TIE, TEL [ and other similar ] arms lengths companies, now often known as ALEOS, to handle the project. There was some understing about the apparently intractable problem about the extent to which an ‘arm’s length’ company is at arm’s length and what that means for achieving council objectives – i.e. a tram system or Edinburgh. Three of the councillor leaders I heard all stressed that the Companies Act duties of council nominated directors, and that legal hurdle seems likely to be a continuing issue for the discussion .

An interesting point that emerged from the evidence of Jenny Dawe was the extent to which the council lacked – or was pressed – on expertise in engineering; in finance; and in the legal complexities of such large projects. That was one of the key reasons why TIE et al. were created.

Whatever the enquiry finds, it seems likely that the blame – such as anyone can attribute – will be wide spread. Today’s questions to Ewan Aitken and answers from him elicited 3 signals that back in 2007 people and organisations thought the project sound enough to proceed . One the Audit Scotland reports confirms sound governance; the further audit by the [UK ]Office of Government Commerce [ I had completely forgotten that one ] and the fact that the government stumped up £500M.

Of course, as those with long memories will recall, the then government [ SNP minority ] only did that because Parliament told them to – against their will . So one of the other items that will figure quite large in discussion, is whether the government instruction for Transport Scotland to withdraw their presence from the tram project will be shown to be an expensive fit of governmental pique .

One further thought . A protocol often employed for transcription of academic research interviews is the inclusion of … to show pauses and hesitation in answers to questions . You won’t see any of these if you read the transcript of the enquiry . They occur, but they don’t appear.


Richard Kerley




Centre for Scottish Public Policy
c/o Digby Brown LLP
160 Causewayside
Causewayside House
Edinburgh EH9 1PR
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