YOU can find any number of fine, quaint photographs of trams on the streets of Edinburgh.
There's a romance to them, if that's your taste, and the vistas are easy enough to spot. The capital has changed, but not out of all recognition.
Shop signs are altered, inevitably; passers-by look uncommonly well-dressed by modern standards. But you couldn't easily miss Princes Street, or Leith Walk, or the clock – though it's migrated a few yards – at Morningside station. The singular difference is the obvious one: there are next to no cars to impede those rattling old trams.
History being perverse, the opposite is now the case. Fifty-six years after the last trams ran in Edinburgh, attempts to put them back on the streets have exacerbated rather than resolved the city's traffic problems. To the west of Princes Street, cars can't move. Without adding another pile of adjectives to a sorry tale, it's a shambles.
Edinburgh's voters don't need to be reminded. As the council election results came in yesterday, it was clear they had decided instead to remind Liberal Democrats, erstwhile city coalition leaders, of the real price attached to a scheme that is – in the popular shorthand – half the length promised and twice the price. When Meadows-Morningside turned against Jenny Dawe, the LibDem council leader, the verdict was in.
I was never a fan of the trams. Even the early, fanciful proposals, promising a hurl from the High Street to Newcraighall, or a run from Haymarket to Leith and Ravelston Dykes, embraced an omission: trams weren't going to be of use to a lot of Edinburgh people. The latest, shrunken scheme – costing £750m to £1 billion, depending on interest payments – might just serve 10% of the population. The estimate is generous.
The western suburbs could benefit. Anyone who wants a pleasant journey from the centre to the airport will be served. The rest will be left to cope with whatever alternative transportation remains in Edinburgh's shrunken arteries. To put it no higher, what is, by common consent, one of the best municipal bus systems in Britain (never privatised; there's a clue) will not be enhanced.
Much of the story is comical. Why has it all taken so long, and cost so much? One crude answer is that no-one paused to wonder what happens when you carve a way through a modern city. How many "utilities" – pipes, cables and all the rest – might you have to deal with? In Edinburgh's case, the answer was – still is – "lots". That's before you begin to ask private owners whether they mind having power lines strung from their properties.
That's not the half of it. To cover even the half of it would take several of this newspaper's pages. What will Edinburgh get for its billion and decades of debt? Well, there's the promise of a service departing at 10-minute intervals that will take you to the airport in 20 minutes. Funnily enough, a dedicated bus service already leaves from Waverley Station every 10 minutes, and covers an equivalent distance in exactly the same amount of time.
Most of Scotland and half of Britain knows that this episode is a scandal. A better question is to ask why, precisely, it became a scandal. Councillors and government can pass the parcel. The SNP can at least repeat that it wanted to cancel the entire project, before discovering, thanks to the magic of accountancy, that even this would have cost hundreds of millions. Everyone involved has accused everyone else. It doesn't help.
Edinburgh's legacy resembles a cross between a turkey and a wounded white elephant. This monstrous entity squats on the life – and future life – of the city because, first, the capital is being choked by cars; because "everyone else was doing it"; because of a legacy of past mistakes in transport policy; and because modern local government is hypnotised by prestige projects.
When I was a child – the trams had gone, before you ask – you could jump on a train at Portobello, on the city's eastern edge, and be at Waverley almost before you took your seat. The South Suburban Railway, the Southsub, was shut down in the early 1960s, but it represented "transport infrastructure" of the kind that would solve a lot of modern problems. The track is still in perfectly good order, and handy if nuclear waste, rather than people, is your priority.
Since a restored Sub is "unaffordable", however, Edinburgh struggles and fails to cope with cars. In the argument over trams, that much is not in dispute. Air quality is a serious issue; quality of life-in-general almost as pressing. I can still navigate most parts of my home town in the dark, but the days in which it was a desirable place to live and grow are slipping away. At this rate, Auld Reekie will come back into fashion as a nickname.
Trams won't solve that. They will displace cars and obstruct buses, but not remove the need for either. It will be no comfort, either, to be told that distinguished European cities believe – though the claim is questionable – in their trams and light railways. A botched project at fantastic cost that fails to serve most inhabitants is not, in fact, that last word in modern urban design.
Which leaves prestige. In an odd way, I don't blame modern councils for falling for the allure of a chimera. What would an ambitious councillor prefer? To tell the voters that their bins can't be picked up as once before, or enthral them with visions of shiny new trams? It is more satisfying to speak of brave new worlds than explain why streets are littered with noxious wheelie bins, that schools are being shut, and that libraries are no longer essential.
Incompetent or not, councillors no longer control a city's daily reality. The rest of us – as yesterday's turn-out demonstrates – no longer take local government seriously. National politicians might spout about "localism" and the gimmickry (in England) of elected mayors, but they no longer have faith in local democracy. If they did, they would pay for that virtue, or allow it to pay for itself. The result, time and again, is a daft "prestige project".
The elementary facts of local government finance are well known. Eighty per cent of the money comes from the central state, 20% from council tax, rents and fees. This gives the minister, whoever it is, plenty of power, especially if he or she elects to ring-fence a piece of spending. It also involves the gearing effect, and a simple piece of arithmetic. Thus: cut 5% from the 80% and the council tax must rise by 20% to preserve budgets. If the minister then decides – it's all the rage – to freeze the council charge, local government is impotent.
Most of us only care about the bill from the bunch at the chambers busy blowing a billion on a shambles. The reaction is perfectly reasonable. The details of local government finance meanwhile neither explain nor excuse what has gone on in Edinburgh.
They amount to the beginnings of a theory, though. They say that the capital got into this unholy mess because elected representatives lost the power to do anything more useful with their time and energy.
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