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Comment: Let’s Not Waste the City Deal

Money is short and the council are having to make cutbacks. However now, given the opportunity to access a significant pot of cash, they aren’t even sure where their priorities should lie.

Last month, a locally elected councillor Jim Bryant seized the opportunity at a community council meeting to state that the council were looking into using a £1bn infrastructure fund to bring the trams to Midlothian.

It is not a new prospect, and given that the new Midlothian Local Development Plan (MLDP) includes a tram line extension to Dalkeith, it is certainly not unexpected for the councillor to be giving the idea some traction.

However, what is unexpected are his comments regarding just where the tram should go. Instead of going to the destination stated in the MLDP, Cllr Bryant was of the view that a spur to Straiton, and onwards to Penicuik, was perhaps a more appealing option. Need I remind him that this has been proposed before and consequently discarded?

In 2003, when the Edinburgh Trams project was in its infancy, Edinburgh Council and its strategic partners, commissioned ARUP Transport Planning to undertake a feasibility study into which tram line branches would prove feasible. Out of six options considered, three were discounted, Penicuik being one of them. The report stated:

Extension E (Penicuik) is high cost, has relatively low patronage and is unlikely to be viable in the form considered.

Whereas, Dalkeith emerged as a favourite:

The Dalkeith extension (F) has the lowest cost and a relatively high patronage density together with a potentially good operating ratio.

Whilst we all know that the forecast costs are unlikely to be representative of the financial burden amassed during the construction works, the stated capital costs were £144m for the Penicuik branch and £58m for the Dalkeith. The actual annual operating costs would leave Penicuik running with a deficit of £1.3m (even with hopefully patronage estimates) whilst Dalkeith would run in the black with £250k of income.

So, what does this tell us about this councillors statement, and the wider administration? The direct contradiction to their own ten year masterplan either shows us a council leadership that doesn’t know what it wants, or worse, one which given the chance to access funding, is willing to invest in a scheme which will have limited positive impact on tax payers’ lives. This once in a generation opportunity to even look at a £1bn infrastructure fund, let alone use it, shouldn’t be scoffed at. Most importantly, it shouldn’t be used for vanity projects.

Midlothian, and south Edinburgh, has pressing problems to deal with. It is about to endure a rapid housing boost and yet its infrastructure will remain largely unchanged. When transport studies were undertaken in 2012, they reckoned the City Bypass (A720) was running at 130% capacity during peak hours. Now that we’re in 2015, and considering there haven’t been any interventions to reduce congestion, that figure probably stands at somewhere near 140% during favourite commuting times. Earlier this month, one set of  strategically placed temporary traffic lights on the A702 managed to grind the entirety of west Midlothian and south Edinburgh to a halt. This shouldn’t be happening, and even given the opportunity to fix the problem, the responsible councils seem to turning a blind eye.

I guess, you could argue that a tram would take motorists off the road, but with a diversion out to Shawfair, the standard bus would likely end up getting you into the city centre just as quick, if not faster. Therefore the reduction in car users would be negligible.

There are methods to reduce congestion being proposed in the MLDP itself, namely the A701 bypass and the Edinburgh Orbital Bus Route (EOBR). The former will cost the council between £7m and £13m, money  they do not currently have. Without the City Deal, the council would be looking to developers to speculatively commit to fund the construction, even if it didn’t directly affect them. The process alone could take years to raise enough to build the road, then the construction would take several more. There is the chance to give this road the funding next year, leading to construction commencing by 2017, all Midlothian has to do is tap into the City Deal fund. For 1.3% of the pot, the neighbouring councils likely wouldn’t raise an objection.

However, there is no point building the new A701 if the road it connects to can’t stand growth. Edinburgh City Bypass requires immediate attention. The answer may lie in converting the hard shoulder into a “hot lane” available for use during peak hours, or it could be something more radical like converting the trunk road into a three lane motorway, ala London’s M25 or Manchester’s M60. Neither of these options would help in the long term as they would eventually reach capacity again. What Edinburgh needs is the EOBR.

It is said that Edinburgh has one of the best bus networks in the United Kingdom but if you’re not wanting to travel into the city centre then you’re out of luck. Commuters who need to get to the west or east of Edinburgh, from Midlothian, are faced with a two hour bus journey or a half hour commute by car. Why isn’t there the option of a bus instead? Enter the Edinburgh Orbital Bus Route. Included in this year’s MLDP, the Edinburgh council equivalent and the wider SESPlan, the project went through a period of popularity in 2012. Feasibility studies were commissioned, a route was selected and… it hit the buffers. This was at the height of the trams fiasco and Edinburgh had enough to deal with and so the region pushed it aside.

Essentially what is proposed is a bus route running from Newbridge, via the Airport, Hermiston, Lothianburn, Straiton, Royal Infirmary, to Queen Margaret University. The buses would navigate along segregated bus only roads or bus lanes, allowing them to bypass any queues which would form. Departing every five minutes, during peak hours, the proposition would offer an attractive alternative to car travel, perhaps even lowering car use in the capital. Initial capital costs would likely be between £20m and £50m, depending on the chosen the route, the types of buses used and the provision of segregated roads.

The whole purpose the City Deal is to generate growth. One has to ask what exactly a tram route to Penicuik would provide. Would it aid growth? No, because the developments will go ahead with our without it. Will it generate income? No, it would run at an annual lost. Would it give councillors a boost to their bravado? Definitely. But when that becomes the main objective of a local council, it’s time to ask the question of whether they should continue to hold power. Let us all hope that this infrastructure fund isn’t gambled away by opportunistic politicians, for a wrong decision now could be severely regretted in ten years time.

Officials from the councils in South East Scotland are drawing up a “shopping list” of infrastructure projects which they would like funded. Discussions to secure about £1bn in joint funding from the Scottish and UK Governments will conclude early next year.