An excellent article in the Edinburgh Evening News earlier this month used Edinburgh’s problematic new tram system, to begin running in 2011 at a cost of £1billion, to highlight a much broader predicament. Councils are undertaking huge, complex schemes at great expense without first successfully delivering basic services.
Edinburgh City Council is not a special case. Councils around the UK have millions of the taxpayers’ money at their disposal but often lack the experience or capability to manage projects efficiently, or to ensure that maximum value is extracted from our money. The author, Helen Martin, offers:
“Councillors need have no particular business expertise, no expert knowledge of economic development and, crucially, no money of their own sunk into whatever wacky endeavour they choose to undertake”.
And ominously, public involvement in decisions on spending these large budgets can be at best minimal. In Edinburgh’s case, deliberate steps may have been taken to exclude the public from the process:
“A council spokeswoman asked about the possible abandonment of the tram project…said: ‘It would not be appropriate to put anything in the public domain that would impact on talks with the consortium.’ ”
As the author points out, it would be unheard of for private investors to be shut out from contract negotiations, so why did the Council believe it appropriate to do the very same to public investors- the taxpayers? The new tram system was signed off before the present group came to office, yet this arms-length approach to the taxpayer is somewhat disconcerting.
When Councils are able to effectively deliver local, everyday services resourcefully and on time then perhaps a case can be made for them to take on grander schemes. As the article aptly suggests:
“The banking system isn't the only thing in need of an overhaul. There is a strong case for councils going back to basics.”