I have always been a booster for Edinburgh as a city: a walkable, architecturally inspired romp across hill and dale that encourages exploration of its compact city centre and trademark panoramas. Its soul sisters Lisbon and San Francisco come close but don’t, for me, quite make it. And, although lively and varied throughout the year, moves up several gears during August when the Festival puts it front-and-centre of the world stage.
Its city fathers or yore (there were no women) have generally discharged their duty of care well: they dodged a serious bullet when they shelved the 1960’s plot to drive a motorway up the Pleasance as the start of an inner-city ring road. Some things have been less far-sighted, as when they ripped out their trams in 1956, lost the plot on what to build on Princes Street then sanctioned debilitating eyesores like the Midlothian CC building or the St James Centre.
Through all that and the half-century since, Edinburgh City Council has had an office-full of time-served civil engineers whose job it is to plan the roads within the city and how to improve them. In that half-century, unlike any other major city in the UK, they have planned and built precious few roads at all. In fact, if you discount trunk roads, the Gyle and Sir Harry Lauder, they have provided diddly-squat.
So what HAVE they been doing all these decades to earn their serious five-figure crusts? At first it was hard: driving new roads through historic cities is difficult. Then twenty years ago, along came a young councillor with an anorak gleam in his eye by name of Begg. His 1995 manifesto for the new unitary council aimed “to help create a civilised, safe, inclusive and sustainable city. The strategy seeks to improve alternatives to the car, reduce the need for car travel, restrain traffic and improve safety”.
At that time, he was in the middle of executing a brainstorm. If he couldn’t build more roads, why, he’d just pretend there were more by overlapping them. With an expenditure on paint that shamed the Forth Bridge ECC covered most major arteries within the city with delineated lanes for buses and expanded bike lanes both on- and off-road. In itself, no bad idea to speed urban bus travel and encourage alternatives to the car, this was, unfortunately, the ONLY measure deployed.
The result was heightened hostility towards car drivers that was amplified by privatising the traffic wardens—the legendary ‘blue meanies’ whose ticket-issuing had far more to do with revenue than speeding traffic flow. On top of that came the proposal for Congestion Charging across the city, with higher rates for a city centre core zone. The funding would have built ‘better transport facilities’ but it was a pig in a poke because none would be put in place first. Worst of all was the absence of ANY transport structure (underground, trains, etc) that almost any city could offer as alternative to buses on narrow streets.
Given that city traffic keeps growing (despite all that paint) and bus journey times still lengthen (despite all the paint) and there were no alternatives to car/bus but bike/walk, when the citizens were polled, they gave it a huge thumbs-down. Such a setback did not faze the irrepressible David Begg. He would go ahead with a plan to provide Edinburgh with a modern tram system that would serve Leith and the northern suburbs, as well as the airport (the airport could easily have been served by re-opening Turnhouse station but that would not have been to the further glory of his status as transport visionary).
So in 2002, with the active collusion of then-Transport Minister Iain Gray, TIE was set up as a cosy cartel and given the contract to deliver two tram lines by 2008 for under £330m. This is no place for that ugly story (try here) but this set off a decade of street disruptions that would have caused riots, had their extent been known at the time. The office-full of roads engineers were switched from playing Picasso with paint to scheduling how to tear up most major arteries in the city multiple times.
Few sensible people advocate letting cars run riot in cities and most agree that areas where pedestrians have priority are far safer and more liveable. Edinburgh’s cycling fraternity have an honourable reputation in persuading Begg & his anorak buddies to listen to them. Where cycle paths were easy, such as across the Meadows or old rail tracks, they have generally been done. But on main roads like Clerk Street or rat runs like Grange Road or the Pleasance, bikes are unwelcome interlopers.
And in the tram wreck that was TIE and the ludicrous overspends/overruns they left in their wake, such niceties as people-friendly environments have gone completely out the window. Funnily enough, the now-Professor Begg jumped ship before all this went down and now:
“Appointed to the Board of First Group as a Non-Executive Director in August 2005. He is Chief Executive of Transport Times and a Non-Executive Director of BAA Limited. He is also Chairman of the Business Infrastructure Commission and a Director of Portobello Partnership. He is a visiting professor at Plymouth University and an adviser to Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive. Until 2005 he was Chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport and a Non-Executive Director of the Strategic Rail Authority”
Gotta hand it to the man—one of the coolest body-swerves out of trouble you have ever seen. Even assuming the tram fiasco ever gets running and paying back some of the £1bn it will cost the public purse, the damage done to the entire economic health of Scotland’s capital city is immense. And, what is worse than that is that the Beggite acolytes still in their transport engineer jobs at Chesser House are still behaving as if this scheme had few on-costs and they can play with the streets as they did in their Picasso ‘blue’ period.
This month, Edinburgh is close to gridlock. Shandwick Place has been closed for over a year; Haymarket is a bomb site; York Place is closed, messing up Leith Walk; St David St is a bomb site (right outside the Waverley tourist focus); Princes Street is clogged and, in their wisdom, the engineers have blocked George St for the Festival. Not only does it look a mess, but the only transport option available are losing customers trying to find ever-changing stop locations when not stuck in jams. It took 40 mins from Holyrood to Queensferry St on a 36—and this is typical.
I have no idea how many shops have gone to the wall. I have no idea how many visitors are heading home, shaking their head how stupid the Scots are to waste so much money ruining a perfectly good city. I have no idea—short of jobs-for-the-boys—how Begg walked away from this without a public lynching. But, than, no-one from TIE has even had their knuckles rapped, let alone had their six-figure salaries pinded.
The modern legacy at City Hall is the usual c.y.a. agency-produced guff that doesn’t even get to the point until halfway through whichever glossy publication it is we’re discussing. And when arch-Labour-loyal Cllr Lesley “don’t-confuse-me-with-a-sunny-day” Hinds pops up to reassure us all that the project is back on track, the coverup and rank-closing must be well advanced.
Meanwhile, you don’t know whether to laugh or throw yourself into one of the many holes that still scar a once-beautiful city centre.