We shouldn’t let the trams affair blunt our ambitions to improve Edinburgh’s transport system, argues DUNCAN HOTHERSALL


Edinburgh’s political types are still reeling from the most recent twists in the tale of our capital city’s trams project.

As the budget overspends were clarified and the estimates of borrowing started to solidify, the council agreed to a Labour motion to limit its exposure to debt by stopping the line at Haymarket. Then, for the first time in four years, the SNP government weighed in and threatened to withhold funding unless the extra mile and a half was built to bring the line to St Andrew Square. With Edinburgh’s SNP spurred into a 180-degree turn on the issue, finally offering some backing for the scheme after years of undermining it, it now looks like Edinburgh Airport to St Andrew Square is the settled result (along with 30 years of debt).

All of the available outcomes were disappointing, of course, to anyone who remembers the original promise of the scheme. An east-west line linking high population centres with commercial areas and the airport; a north-south route linking the Royal Infirmary to the centre via more densely populated zones; the promise of cleaner air, less noise, more pedestrianisation, fewer unnecessary car journeys: a healthier and more vibrant city.

And there is a grave danger that the result of this great and expensive disappointment will be an unwillingness to contemplate any further plans to improve transport and the environment in Edinburgh. People are deeply angry about the waste and mismanagement. The city feels let down and humbled.

What sort of idiot would argue now for a big investment in new transport schemes in Edinburgh?

Well, me, as a matter of fact.

I would argue that right now we need to get back that vision of Edinburgh – that healthier and more vibrant city – and offer people a promise that Labour can make that vision a reality.

We should argue for an investment in rail services to increase capacity at Waverley and to reopen the South Suburban line to passenger traffic. Additional capacity at Waverley – not the tinkering that is currently going on – should be part of the next Scotrail franchise renewal agreement, the SNP having missed their chance to do anything about this when they simply extended the existing franchise earlier this year. Landowners and businesses along the route of the South Sub should be brought together in a public good consortium to fund the development of loop passenger services linking the population centres in the south west and south east to the centre.

We should make changes to the city centre streetscape following the model of Brighton’s New Road and the shared spaces philosophy which inspired it. Starting with George Street and its offshoots, and making the most of Craig’s New Town layout and the architecture which was inspired by it, we should return cars to full use of the central streets, including Princes Street, but with the assumption of pedestrian priority by dint of design and usage. The Royal Mile stands as an example of what can be achieved. The investment needed can be met by city centre businesses which will accrue the benefits in time.

As has been done on the Royal Mile, time-limited delivery access should be mandated across the city centre to keep traffic flowing freely during the day. The peak hours bus lanes should then be abolished in favour of zero tolerance parking restrictions during rush hours. The presumption should be that car drivers are not penalised for driving into the city, but are penalised heavily for blocking others. We should invest in underground parking to replace on-street parking, as is done successfully in similar-sized cities on the continent, while continuing to support the development of park and ride schemes to reduce unnecessary journeys. This will help get people into the city centre to spend money and support development, rather than encouraging them to frequent out-of-town shopping centres and contribute to economic decay.

And we should urge central government and Transport Scotland to extend the single tram line into a tram network for Edinburgh, first taking it to Leith, Granton and Newhaven, then implementing the existing plans for Line 3 through the south of the city to Little France. Only by creating a network can we make the trams work as an effective element of the city’s public transport. We should do so in the knowledge that our city will be growing again soon enough, and these lines will be an economic boost and a facilitator for other investment. We have learned great lessons about how not to approach such contracts and we should capitalise on them.

And how to pay for the substantial public investment needed to achieve these aims? Well a presumption that moves away from spending on unsustainable roads and focuses instead on sustainable forms of transport like rail would be a start. But the fundamental shift needs to be to cancel the unnecessary ‘Forth replacement crossing’ project before too much more money is poured into that black hole. The existing bridge is maintainable. Indeed, the government’s own plans involve keeping it in use. We don’t need a new road bridge over the Forth. We’ve got one.

Rather than retreat and lick our wounds after the trams fight, I think Labour in Edinburgh needs to stand up and promote a vision for Edinburgh transport which capitalises on the city’s size, attractiveness and accessibility. A costed, considered, optimistic plan which gives car drivers a break, pedestrians and cyclists a safer environment, and everyone a world-class public transport system: a positive vision for a clean, friendly future for our capital.

Duncan Hothersall is a Labour Party member and was the founding chair of Pride Scotland as well as a founding director of the Equality Network. Follow Duncan on Twitter at @dhothersall.