Street Fight!

28 Jun

Edinburgh’s trams fiasco and the campaign to keep Lothian Buses public

If you’ve been tuning in to the news over the last week then you couldn’t have missed the furore surrounding the on-going Edinburgh Trams project. If by rare chance you haven’t heard about the controversies impacting this project, well, let’s just say this isn’t how you go about developing a tram line, never-mind a network…

A brief summary doesn’t do the matter justice but here is a snapshot nonetheless of the last few years:

  • Allocated a budget of over £500 million from the Scottish Government, some 80% of this has already been chewed-up while only 24% of the original infrastructure completed;
  • Highly-paid directors at the troubled tram firm TIE are throwing-in the towel en masse ; and
  • An ongoing dispute with the trams infrastructure contractor.

In between times  roads have been dug-up, local traders put out of pocket, further construction (or is that de-construction) is expected and the First Minister has backed calls for a Public Inquiry into the project.  When it’s all said and done (if it ever will be) the final cost is expected to hit the public purse for over £1 billion.   Not bad in the current financial climate…

This Thursday, Edinburgh’s Councillors will meet to vote on the future of the trams project based on the recommendations of this report .  It seems options are on the table, none of which nearly mirror the original infrastructure, projected to cost either £700 million or £773 million.  There is a third way – mothballing the project. However, this has been omitted from the report despite being a previous position of many Councillors.  Apparently this unmentionable option would cost £750 million.

It’s difficult to overstate the depth of public anger about the money being milked by this disastrous project, never mind the justifiable fury being levelled at the politicians overseeing the process – particularly when they treat folk to a little comedy amidst the gloom.   More and more people in Edinburgh are starting to say, ‘enough is enough’.

So, after 300-odd words which probably haven’t made this subject any clearer, why does this matter to Unite?  In a word: Buses.

Lothian Buses is Edinburgh’s main operator, servicing over 350,000 passengers every day throughout the city and the Lothians.  And it is publicly owned.  It is a shining example of how a modern public transportation service can operate in a profitable manner (over £9 million in 2010) while delivering an affordable and frequent service for the travelling public.   No mean feat in these ‘austere’ times.

Only eighteen months ago, the council had a seemingly concrete position that Lothian Buses would be merged with a completed tram project / system / route / line / rail… (Delete as appropriate, dear reader) and its operating arm TIE under an integrated body called TEL.  This set alarm bells ringing among our membership at Lothian Buses.

Rightly so, our members recognised the potential impact this would have on their jobs, terms and conditions and also on the travelling public; namely increased fares, reduced services and creeping marketisation against a trams project spiralling out of control.

By autumn 2010 momentum was building among local councillors and the tram developers’ TIE for the merged transport body.  The workers at Lothian Buses started a campaign to preserve their company’s publicly owned status and to park proposals for a TEL merger.  The October council meeting was lobbied by the workers and their Unite reps spoke passionately about saving the people’s bus service in addition to their own futures.

What happened next was a fine demonstration to other trade union members of a sustained local campaign that shifted the political direction of a squabbling and uncertain group of councillors.

Recognising the lack of strategic direction for transport in Edinburgh among local councillors, not to mention a lack of expressed support for the bus workers across the chamber, Unite members in Lothian Buses set out to achieve a number of campaign objectives to protect their company:

  • Lothian Buses to remain in full public ownership;
  • The disbandment of TEL; and
  • The delivery of a debt free tram line by TIE to be operated by Lothian Buses (if ever completed…perhaps a cheeky request!).

The workforce moved quickly to conduct a massive lobby of Edinburgh’s Councillors via e-mail, mail, telephone and face to face discussion at surgeries to ‘educate and inform’ local politicians of their position.

By the time of the next council meeting of 17th December to debate a refreshed business case for the trams, all 58 councillors had been contacted many times over by workers, their families and their friends leaving them in no doubt about the weight of trade union and indeed public opinion regarding the public ownership status of Lothian Buses.

The outcome of that meeting represented a significant political turn-around in a short space of time.  The council shelved plans for the merger, at least in the short-term, effectively securing Lothian Buses public status for the time being.  The pro-active and organised campaigning of the workers re-shaped the political opinion of the City of Edinburgh Council chamber; an example of how a local-level political focus can create real change in our towns and cities.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it.  This Thursday the workers at Lothian Buses, backed by Unite, will lobby the city chambers as Edinburgh’s Councillors arrive to once again debate and vote on the future of a white elephant project.

The workers won’t go away and why should they?  They know that whatever the outcome, be it a £700 million line from the Edinburgh Airport to Haymarket or a £770 million- plus route to St Andrew’s Square, it will impact negatively on their company and the travelling public.  More money, more disruption and more uncertainty for a profitable public service and its workers.

So let’s draw a line in the sand.  After Thursday our members will be ready to re-ignite their campaign and so will their trade union.  If the public ownership status of Lothian Buses is threatened by any re-hashed business plan, its workers terms and conditions brought into question or if there are calls for TEL to be re-introduced, then we will fight against it.

With local elections taking place in May 2012 the Sword of Damocles is very much hanging over each and everyone of the city’s Councillors, irrespective of their party political persuasion.  They are under immense pressure for this fiasco and they know it.

Now, about that unspoken third option…

P.S.  A new twist occurred last night (Tuesday 28th June) with the Deputy Leader of Edinburgh Council calling for a referendum on the future of the trams.  Let the people of Edinburgh decide?  It might be a safer option that letting the Council…

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