When the Glasgow Airport Rail Link was cancelled in 2009, some critics called the decision a dagger in the heart of Glasgow.
Now, four years on from the cancellation, the dagger has been twisted with the revelation that hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money has been spent on compensating a business that owned land near the proposed route of the link. After the anger and frustration over the original decision to scrap the project, it looks like good money being thrown after bad. It may be a waste of public resources on a project that never was.
Airlink Group, the business that was compensated for the loss of its land, cannot be blamed for what has happened. Airlink was running a car park near the rail link and, quite rightly, had to be reimbursed for the land and the business that could have been done on the site. The firm was paid £840,000 for the plot but it was also paid an undisclosed sum to compensate for the loss of business.
Had the Glasgow Airport Rail Link (Garl) gone ahead as planned, we might not have heard much more about this money but, as we know, the project was scrapped by the Scottish Government on cost grounds in 2009. This meant the plot of land was no longer needed and, after failing to sell at auction, it is now back in the hands of Airlink, which picked it up again for £50,000.
It was clearly a good deal for Airlink, but it was a bad deal for the taxpayer, and a disgraceful waste of public money, with the Scottish Government recouping just 6% of what it spent on compensating Airlink. Naturally, governments must compensate those who lose their land because of big public projects - the same is happening with the HS2 rail route in England - and governments are also legally required to dispose of land acquired through compulsory purchase that they no longer need.
However, these latest revelations about Garl will only add to the suspicion that the controls on the spending of public money on large projects are not good enough. Last week, a report by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee on the procurement of two new aircraft carriers for the Navy exposed decisions based on flawed information and taken in secret as well as basic incompetence such as forgetting to factor in inflation. Scotland's most senior civil servant was also criticised yesterday for an apparent £500m discrepancy in the costs of five transport projects, including improvements to the Glasgow to Edinburgh rail line.
In all of these projects, including Garl, the same rules must apply. When public money is spent, it must be spent wisely, and openly, and waste should be kept to a minimum. On the face of it, the Garl deal fails to meet these standards. How much compensation was Airlink paid in total? Could the Scottish Government have held out for a higher price than £50,000?
Whether the decision to scrap Garl was right or wrong - and there is still a strong case for a rail link to bring Glasgow into line with other major European cities - the taxpayer needs to know what was spent on the project and why and that no more money will be wasted. The plot of land owned by Airlink is called the Paisley Triangle - the Scottish Government must ensure no more money disappears into it.
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