Ting! Ting! The Edinburgh trams are coming. Or rather, the report of the Edinburgh Trams Inquiry is finally trundling into view. The BBC recently reported that the mammoth document had been sent to the printers and would land on a grateful public soon.  

When the judge-led inquiry was announced, the First Minister said it would be “swift and thorough”. As that First Minister was Alex Salmond, it damn well ought to be thorough. 

Alas, no one could accuse Lord Hardie’s inquiry of being swift. It has taken longer than the building of the tram line in question.

Work on the project began in 2007 and trams first ran from Edinburgh Airport to York Place in 2014.  

Priced at £375 million in 2003 and expected to take three and a half years to build, it came in £400m over budget and five years late, despite being massively scaled back.

It was an epic saga of fighting politicians, managers and contractors that turned large parts of the capital into a building site for years.

As if infected by exposure to the nightmare, the inquiry became a byword for sloth itself. 

The Herald:

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Lord Hardie’s look under the bonnet has taken nine years – longer than the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War – and cost taxpayers £13m, most of it going on staff and legal fees. 

In the meantime, and without bothering to wait for the inquiry to lecture it, Edinburgh Trams has extended the line north to Newhaven. 

Trams should start running all the way from the airport to the shore next week, although passenger-less ones are already ting-tinging round Leith as the drivers are trained. 

Whatever Lord Hardie’s inquiry reveals and concludes, it’s hard to imagine it making much practical difference to the commuters on the line, or to the local residents and businesses simply relieved to put the construction chaos behind them.

It may, however, raise questions about the merit of public inquiries.

According to ministers, the point of these is “preventing recurrence”. 

But some examine events and projects which are close to unique. There will not be another Edinburgh Tram project any time soon. Nor will there be another Scottish Parliament, the capital’s other great money pit, and which also spawned an inquiry.  

In his report on the Holyrood building, Lord Fraser admitted: “I do not envisage another Parliament building will be constructed in Scotland in my lifetime or for many years after that and the circumstances of the Holyrood Project might accordingly be regarded as wholly exceptional.” 

His recommendations boiled down to using more competent professionals instead of civil service amateurs, tighter oversight and a warning about working with ‘signature’ architects.

One reason some inquiries are so underwhelming is that they have dubious origins.

Opposition politicians love calling for them because it discomforts the government of the day.

While on the government side, inquiries are often used to get out of a hole. 

Rather than some scandal forcing resignations, the issue can be passed along to an inquiry, which politicians can then hide behind knowing it will take years to report.

Those who order inquiries to satisfy a short-term demand know they will probably have moved on by when the findings emerge to an indifferent reception.

Blair had been nine years out of power when Chilcot reported. 

But it would be wrong to think that, while some are sketchy, the £700m spent on public inquiries across the UK in the last 30 years has been wasted.

The other one in the news this week – Lady Hallett’s Covid-19 Inquiry, which is fighting the Cabinet Office over Boris Johnson’s personal messages – is sadly not a one-off event.

Covid, experts reckon, was not the “real pandemic” they had been expecting for decades, but a relatively mild curtain-raiser. The worst is yet to come, and so learning...

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