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Entertaining as the Edinburgh festival may be, it is struggling to match the drama of the city’s ill-starred tram system, now so hopelessly over-budget and delayed that stand-up comics have run out of jokes to rival the reality.
The divided city council has voted to shorten the route so it will run from the airport just to Haymarket, west of the city centre, overturning an earlier decision to take it almost two miles further to St Andrew Square. “It’s just bonkers,” said Graham Birse of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. A tram that does not reach the centre indeed appears less than useful.
Intended to match modern tram systems in cities such as Dublin, Bordeaux and Manchester, the scheme has become mired in cost overruns and contractual wrangles. Edinburgh, while beautiful and prosperous, has a history of this sort of thing. On top of Calton Hill stands a half-built copy of the Parthenon in Athens, conceived as a monument to those who died in the Napoleonic wars, abandoned in 1829 and known as “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”. More recently, the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood cost 10 times its original £40m estimate. At least that building was finished. It is an open question whether the tram will be completed in any form.
Edinburgh is run by a Liberal Democrat-Scottish National party coalition, but Labour and the Conservatives were able to push the Haymarket decision through because the SNP – which opposed the tram project from the start – abstained. Labour and the Tories were alarmed that reaching the centre would cost more than £1bn including additional loans and interest, almost double the original £545m budget.
Lib Dems say the Haymarket option could end up costing more because it would run at a loss, thus outweighing lower borrowing costs. In truth, none of the financial forecasts can be relied on – even cancellation would be expensive.
No party comes out well – neither Labour, the Lib Dems and Tories, who together initiated the project, nor SNP councillors, who ducked responsibility last week. There are suggestions that the SNP-run Scottish government should withhold its remaining £60m contribution unless the tram goes to the centre.
Liverpudlians have a phrase, “getting off at Edge Hill” (one stop before Lime Street), which is a euphemism for coitus interruptus. “Getting off at Haymarket” could be an apt euphemism for political incompetence.
Why do they sell?
Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, in warning that Britain faces a poor future as a hub of technological innovation unless it finds better ways to support science in education and business, raises a hot topic.
“The UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries,” he said in the annual James MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh. “But there’s little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they’re then left to wither or get transplanted overseas.”
The agreed takeover of Autonomy, Britain’s biggest software champion, by Hewlett-Packard of the US is a blow to the UK’s hopes of building a “global gorilla” in the sector, even if its operations remain in Britain. But more worrying, as Strathclyde University’s Prof Colin Mason pointed out in a letter to the FT, are the smaller technology companies acquired by large foreign ones.
Elizabeth Garnsey and Vivian Mohr of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing found that 42 per cent of high-growth companies in the Cambridge cluster were acquired between 1998 and 2008 – double the 1980s’ rate. Almost half the acquirers were foreign.
In many ways the UK has advanced as a technology centre over the past decade. Some companies grow to a decent size and there are more repeat entrepreneurs who reinvest their expertise into new ventures. But many sell too soon.
Is this because entrepreneurs lack staying power, or because the funding system is flawed, with business angels or venture capitalists seeking too quick a return? Vince Cable, business secretary, is fond of reviews. This is surely worthy of investigation.
“Arsène Wenger has been here,” a waiter in a Strasbourg restaurant told me proudly a couple of weeks ago. Any more results like Sunday’s 8-2 thrashing by Manchester United and the Arsenal manager will be free to eat there as often as he likes.
This article has been corrected since original publication. Work on the National Monument (“the Parthenon”) in Edinburgh was abandoned in 1829, not 1826 as previously stated.