Thursday, 16 April 2009

Dragons Den on Transport Projects: Review of Event at Scottish Labour Conference

The scene was set: West Coast vs. East Coast; Subway vs. Tram; Flexi-Parks vs. political capital. The Centre’s first foray into a dragon’s den format began and the premise was simple: under the stewardship of Bob Wylie (SPT) each transport project would battle it out to win not only the votes of the dragons, but more importantly the support of the audience.

Political Capital

Tension was in the air. Even Ross Martin from the Centre for Scottish Public Policy looked nervous, a feat due in large part to the implicit alpha male aggression exhibited by the Labour dragons. Thankfully Ross was up first. With the aplomb which only a retired politician can display he pitched for ‘political capital’. What? Yes, that was the reaction of the Dragons too – well, until they heard these words:

Be brave: kill the plans for a new Forth crossing and release capital [£3 billion] to make other projects feasible.

This caught everyone’s attention. Ross quickly threw himself into outlining what other projects he had in mind. They included completing the motorway project, electrifying the Railway network and, wait for it, reintroducing tolls on the bridge and congestion charges for Edinburgh. Someone from the East coast Labour delegation nearly choked on their sandwich.

But this was not his real purpose. Rather, he was throwing the dragons and guests a ‘curveball’. His point of contention was conceptual; ideational even. Ross lamented the lack of ‘sensible discussion’ in Scottish transport policy, describing it as ‘backward’. The penny began to drop. Ross was pitching for a more mature, cross-party and integrated approach to transport.

Ross sat down, his anxiety no doubt exacerbated by the realisation that his proposals were going to be attacked by the dragons. Questions flew at him from all angles: on how he would re-cable the bridge and the effect this would have on traffic, to how we help the local economy and how he expected politicians to change their mind. As the dragons smelt blood Bob Wylie intervened like a good chair should, saving Ross from further questioning.


Gavin Scott from the Freight Transport Association (FTA) was next up calling for Flexi-Parks. Initially there was some confusion over what exactly a flexi-park was. The dragons looked perplexed. But Gavin soon made his case clear: make part of ‘park and ride facilities’ open to HGVs and ‘squeeze some volume out of these assets’ by spending on facilities, ground surfaces, CCTV and showers.

This practical solution clearly resonated with both the dragons and audience, and if they weren’t supportive already their ears pricked at the mention of charging the drivers to use the facilities. To further validate his case Gavin fired stats at everyone; people had to duck – the cost of doing this is £50 per square metre, 10% more of simply producing spaces in car parks.

Gavin was clearly a man with a plan. His proposal was simple, quickly implementable and cost effective. Yet the dragons were not as wooed as they appeared to be. One dragon admitted that the proposal was ‘superficially attractive’ yet worried about the effect it would have on peek traffic flows and on the surrounding environment. Gavin replied that a solution could be found by combing the flexi-park with consolidation centres and directing the HGVs to leave before traffic increased.

Another dragon pointed out that HGV drivers don’t always use the designated facilities, a point Gavin addressed by stating that drivers must be provided with an attractive alternative. Other queries were voiced but it was clear that this was a proposal that the dragons liked. The audience whispered that the pitch was going to be difficult to outdo.

Tram Line 3

Certainly no one told Councillor Andrew Burns who launched into a proposal for a tram line three for Edinburgh. His recent council experiences with the you know what had clearly provided him with the bravery and confidence to take on the flexi-parks – nor was he put by the gasps of surprise that escaped from the audience.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Cllr Burns described investing in tram line three to the south east of Edinburgh as a ‘straight-forward task’ that would cost somewhere in the region of £280m. As the audience and dragons were about to query his description of the project as straight-forward, he pre-emptively struck by offering the dragons a 9% stake in the company if they backed the proposal.

Sensing a change of sentiments was in the wind he outlined the necessity of the tram project by:

1) Painting a picture of Edinburgh in 2025 and thus stressing the demographic changes the city will face (e.g. 11% growth in population and 30% increase in car usage).
2) Outlining what the tram line will consist of (e.g. link it from St Andrews square down to Cameron toll and from Edinburgh bio port to the QMU) and the economic impact it would have on the Edinburgh city region.
3) Stressing the environmental benefits and impact it would have on the city’s air quality.

Cllr Burns pitch was well executed but in many ways it didn’t matter – he had already secured the support of the dragons with the promise of a 9% stake in the company. One dragon, however, was unconvinced and displayed all the ethical valour of Ghandi:

Rather than invest money into the tram company I would rather invest it in RBS. Its better ran and better funded.

In response Cllr Burns explained that Tie had not received the support of the council from day one. As others lined up to quiz the Cllr, it was clear that the carrot was not as enticing as he thought it would be. The Labour dragons asked how, given the shambles of tram line one, he could expect them to fund the project and why they should invest in this transport project and not other possibilities like trolley buses. Cllr Burns stressed again that it was partly down to political leadership and that trams have more capacity than many other transport possibilities. Lastly, he emphasised that they were a proven way to entice people to use public transport.

Subway Modernisation

Bob Wylie moved things along; not that he was in any motivated to hear his own organisations’ pitch which was presented by the Chair of SPT, Councillor Alastair Watson (click here for some footage). Cllr Watson called on the dragons to ‘invest in a proven track record’: that is, the 113 years old subway system in Glasgow city centre.

Against the backdrop of silent East coast Labour animosity, Cllr Watson informed the dragons that it had been thirty years since the subway’s last modernisation and clearly investment was required if Glasgow was to have a ‘metro system fit for the 21st century’. In case they weren’t already on board, the Labour dragons from Glasgow were enticed by the promise that such investment would ‘give Glasgow its true stage as a global competitor’:

The question is how many cities in Europe would give their eye teeth for infrastructure such as we have in Glasgow and not invest in it.

The pitch was well received which, of course, had nothing to do with the imposing stature of Bob Wylie and Cllr Watson. The latter’s emphasis on the effect it would have on Glasgow clearly resonated with the dragons as did the fact that the metro’s frequency could increase substantially – a service would arrive every one and a half minutes culminating in 17.5m passengers using it annually. The pitch went out on a high:

Our pitch is visionary [and is] right for the 21st century and right for Scotland.

Despite some of the dragons voicing their support the project - ‘maybe it’s time to look again at the subway’ and ‘we need to invest in what is an important of the economy and transport network’ – others raised serious questions: how do you fund it; what funding mechanism would you use; could you extend the tram system to the East of Glasgow; and is it really needed. Cllr Watson paid particular attention to the last question and assured them that there is a ‘great desire for more availability’.

Results: The Dragons Scorecards

One thing was clear: it was going to be close, excluding the pitch from Ross Martin. Predictably the dragons made everyone wait - longer even than Chris Tarrant - which exacerbated the already nervous participants. Suddenly it became unbearably warm until the chair was informed that the results were in.

Everyone knew the result before it was announced because of the large smile painting Bob Wylie’s face. This show of emotion, however, was shelved and Bob returned as the professional, impartial chair - well, sort of. Yet just as SPT were about to bask in the sunshine of success, the public had their say.

Tyranny of the Majority

Bringing a whole new meaning to Alexis de Tocqueville’s infamous phrase the public vote, as it always does, threw a spanner in the works. There was a new victor. Coming from third and against all odds - the event was held amidst damaging headlines for the tram project - tram line three was triumphant gaining an extra twelve votes from the public. Even Cllr Burns was surprised.

With calls for recounts and opposition voices growing ever more vociferous it was like a scene from the US Presidential elections in 2000. Bob Wylie reluctantly concluded that SPT had been ‘edged out by a large Edinburgh delegation’, whilst Gavin Scott looked pleased with a seven point leap and a bottle of whisky which someone from FTA had won in a prize draw. Meanwhile, Ross Martin asked himself whether or not it was a wise idea to describe transport policy as backward given it was led for eight years with a Lib/Lab coalition.

Undeniably the event was a success. Matching humour with serious debate, it showcased numerous transport projects which could get Scotland to work and confirmed that the Centre for Scottish Public Policy is the place to go for innovative fringe events. Naturally, this event could not have happened without the kind support of our sponsors: SPT; Tie; FTA; and Mott MacDonald. We greatly appreciate their backing.

Future Events

In the coming months the Centre will be busy organising a range of events: from a debate on elected health boards featuring the Health Secretary at the SNP conference to hustings events (ran in conjunction with the Hansard Society and the European Movement) for the European elections in June; not to mention another transport dragons den at the Conservative conference, a debate on Transport Options for Edinburgh at the STUC conference and our annual Edinburgh city region event in July.

Keep an eye out for more details in the near future.

Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Officer

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