Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Scottish Government's one track mind

One transport project costs £700 million, three times the original budget, is 3 years late, generates pollution and experts now say will not cut congestion. Another transport project costs £750 million, 50% over the original budget, is 3 years late, cuts pollution and is known to cut congestion. Which one does the SNP Government support and which one does it say is a waste of money?

If I tell you the first one benefits motorists (M74 extension) and the second benefits public transport users (Edinburgh trams), anyone who knows the SNP will know the answer.

The SNP does not have a good history of encouraging people out of their cars. Whether it's promoting big road projects like the M74, Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road and A68 Dalkeith bypass, or it's removing Forth and Tay Bridge tolls. It wants to spend around £2 Billion on a replacement road bridge when the tests on drying out the existing bridge's cables are not complete.

The SNP has always been lukewarm on the Borders Railway ("The Scottish Government has always been clear that this project must deliver value for money", Stewart Stevenson in 2008) whilst supporting airport expansion.

But what of the trams? Alex Salmond has ruled out increasing the Scottish Government's £500 million contribution.

Dublin's Luas system was a year late and cost €728 million compared to the original budget of €250 million. Road works during construction led to the same level of unpopularity as in Edinburgh, yet once implemented became so popular that use and income exceeded expectations and extensions to the network were demanded by Dublin residents.

Cost overruns on large projects seem inevitable - bizarrely given there are so many precedents worldwide for each project to be judged against. Poor project management, as displayed by both the Edinburgh tram project and the building of the Scottish Parliament building, is also inexcusable for the same reason.

However, we are where we are. Surely it's time for the Scottish Government to take control of the tram project from Edinburgh City Council and deliver at least a basic system which can be extended over time. Perhaps if the cost ends up at 'only' £730 million as opposed to the reported £750 million, the Scottish Government can claim it came in under budget. After all, that's how they are presenting the M74 extension.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Harmed Forces Day

Saturday 25th June is designated Armed Forces Day, with events principally being held in Edinburgh. Forgive me, but I will not be attending.

I am not a pacifist, and indeed I have tremendous respect for the servicemen and women who are prepared to lay down their lives for their country's freedom - whatever country. I also believe that we need armed forces for the day we may need to defend our shores - but I don't  think that's what it's all about.

On the web site promoting the events, it states "The UK Armed Forces defend the UK and its interests". So what exactly are the UK's interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, we were assured, but against whom? The major UK interest seemed to be that British bases in the Mediterranean could be attacked 'within 45 minutes' (unless you count Iraqi oil as a UK interest). Afghanistan hosted some Al-Qaeda training camps, arguably part of a wider terrorist threat (unless you count the country's importance as a conduit for oil pipelines as a UK interest). Libya is about protecting civilians from attack by its government forces (unless of course you count Libyan oil as a UK interest).

What starts as a simple operation so often gets bogged down (Iraq - Mission Accomplished) and the remit is widened, then things start to go horribly wrong. So why do we keep on doing it?

In all the above cases, UN resolutions were gained or sought and were part of an aim for international agreement for action. International agreement does not imply protecting UK interests unless those interests are shared by others in the international community, so the 'UK interests' bit is starting to get a bit murky in my view.

If it's about acting with others as the world's policemen, let's be honest about it, and dare I say, more even handed. Why not Zimbabwe, North Korea and China, home to some of the worst human rights abuses in the world?

Liberating the people? Whether it's Afghanistan, Libya, or anywhere else, you cannot impose democracy upon a people, it has to come from within. If we are so intent on opposing oppressive regimes, instead of bombing them, let's start by not giving them the means to oppress, like selling them arms.

Unfortunately, our armed forces are caught up in all of this. They signed up to 'defend the UK and its interests', not to act on the whims of politicians keen to strut the world stage, yet Armed Forces Day reinforces the link between legitimate defence and politically motivated military adventures.

My heart goes out to relatives and friends of soldiers every time another coffin arrives from Afghanistan; lives wasted on a lost cause. I will also continue to attend our local Remembrance Day commemoration each November as I have done for as many years as I can remember, but I will not be celebrating Armed Forces Day.

Perhaps it will be used as an opportunity for those in power to reflect on their cavalier abuse of the bravest sons and daughters in the land. But somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Edinburgh gets what it voted for

It comes as no surprise to me that Edinburgh has made it into the top ten list of congested cities.  That was, after all, what Edinburgh's Labour councillors, supported only by the Greens, said would happen when the referendum on congestion charging in the capital was so soundly defeated in 2005.

People's attitudes to congestion charging bear many similarities to those with the council tax freeze, which I posted on recently. If you ask people if they want to pay £2 to drive into the capital, they will invariably say no. Ask them to consider the alternatives and perhaps a different answer would have been forthcoming.

Yet that detail was what was so clearly missing from the debate at the time. Would people mind deaths resulting from emergency services being gridlocked? Did businesses appreciate the financial benefit of cutting half an hour off a cross city journey? No, it was all about a £2 charge - with opponents omitting to remind us that it would only operate during weekday peak travel periods. One stark example of the level of debate I recall was the alleged disincentive to visit restaurants in the city; yet during weekends and evenings when people would wish to do so, the charge would not have operated. And even if it did, would £2 added to the cost of a meal really have put people off?

It was also clouded by political parties which saw the way the popular vote was swinging. Congestion charging was Liberal Democrat policy, but true to form, they opposed it in this instance. Even the Scottish Socialists sided with the Tories on this one.

Midlothian's Labour councillors, in their usual nineteen sixties mindset, opposed their Edinburgh colleagues, but were at least consistent in their desire to encourage as many of its residents to drive into Edinburgh as possible, helped along by the A68 Dalkeith bypass.

There is no doubt that the Edinburgh trams project has been badly mishandled. It could have and should have been built in its entirety and within budget, as other cities throughout Europe have ably demonstrated. However, leaving the mismanagement aside, congestion charging would have provided a financial boost to extend the network out to Midlothian, or even with the current scenario, allowed it to be completed without risking the independence of Lothian Buses.

Instead, we have no trams, impending gridlock, and a consequent threat to the economic well-being of the city and its environs.

Even so, is congestion charging the answer to congestion? Especially as London, with its well established scheme, is still ahead of us in the congestion league. Using financial incentives to change behaviour only changes the behaviour of the less well off, and perhaps they have a better reason to drive into Edinburgh that the rich. Allowing, say, only vehicles with odd/even number plates into the city on alternate days doesn't hit those who can afford two cars.

In the light of this, and a clear dislike for the public to delve more deeply into debate, perhaps the answer is to restrict everyone's access by banning all cars from certain areas and pedestrianising more widely.  Forcing people out of their cars in this way would encourage greater use of an already excellent public transport system in the city, whilst ensuring all car owners are treated equally, whether rich or not.

The alternative it seems, is that we steadily move up from seventh in the league, and people are eventually coaxed out of their cars, quite simply because it's faster to walk.