Wednesday, 16 April 2014


By Mark Cooney

DESPITE Edinburgh Council’s protestations, the collapse of a school wall that killed 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett could and should have been avoided.

The dangerous state of the girls’ changing rooms at Liberton High School had been reported by pupils, but nothing was done to repair it.

It is a tragedy that leaves a loving family in despair, but one that is sadly indicative of the consequences of wasteful and even immoral spending by our councils. 

They have spent many millions, and sometimes billions, on needless vanity projects, while our towns continue to fall into disrepair at an alarming rate. Walk around the less salubrious areas of our communities and you are compelled to ask yourself; “where’s the money going?”

Keane’s school needed £1million of repairs but council budget pressures meant it was not deemed a priority.

One Liberton pupil claimed she had warned a teacher some months ago that there was an unstable wall in the girls' changing room. She said: “I told staff that the wall had moved when I leaned on it, but nothing was done. I think they should have done something.”

And, in February, the Council was fined £8,000 after a pupil received serious injuries when she fell down a lift shaft at the same school.

When it comes to dilapidated facilities, Liberton High School is not alone. This week, schools in Perthshire were also in the headlines because of council neglect.

On an island of health and safety fanaticism, surely every council has a legal and moral obligation to ensure school structures are at the very least safe, if not modern and child friendly. Risking children’s safety is never an option and the wall should have been repaired immediately as a matter of course after being reported.

Why it wasn’t we don’t yet know, but it may have been attended to had Edinburgh’s Council not burned a billion notes on a tram system that the majority of the city’s residents neither believed was needed, nor wanted.

The project was originally costed in 2003 at £375 million.

Most would agree that Edinburgh has an excellent bus service that did not require an additional tram network, but the then Liberal Democrat-led council ploughed ahead, regardless of the feelings of local taxpayers.

I suspect that improvements to crater-laden roads, litter collection, public health and school safety were higher on the public’s agenda.

Keane’s grandmother this week revealed similar feelings when she told a Scottish newspaper that the trams budget had come at the sacrifice of school kids’ safety.

My contacts, some of whom were in senior positions on the Edinburgh tram committee before they departed with generous payoffs, speak of a bemused and rudderless group of social workers ‘working’ on a complex subterranean engineering project of which they had zero experience.

One would think it would have been better to hire more engineers, or maybe even experienced professionals who understood building contracts. But I understand the council panjandrums were instead enjoying their junkets, visiting the world’s great cities and their tram networks at public expense.

This is not a demonisation of trams, which can offer frequent, efficient and cheap public transport, but more the monstrous mismanagement of contracts and a spectacular failure of supervisory diligence. And the utter disregard for the public purse.

Since coming to power in Scotland in 2007 the SNP has repeatedly berated the plan to spend a billion pounds on the trams. The kerfuffle finally took its toll on the Liberal Democrats when the party was all but wiped out at the 2012 city council elections.

Edinburgh Council is now led by an SNP/Labour coalition, but the trams project goes ahead as planned.

Well, not really as planned. More than two years late, significantly truncated from the original routes - because they had run out of money - and still several hundred million pounds over budget. 

Serious money, indeed - money that should have been spent on public buildings, housing, schools, pavements and streets. Surely there is a strong case to be made that council neglect and budgetary incompetence attributed, at least in part, to a child’s death.

This week it was revealed that expenditure on footpath maintenance in Scotland is down 20% since 2009. This offers more clear evidence that money, our money, is being spent elsewhere.

And here’s another fiscal factor. How much compensation is Edinburgh Council paying out each year to victims of accidents caused by poorly maintained pavements, roads, walls and buildings? And will the accident payouts increase as trams and cyclists vie with each other for space on the road?

Are they really managing and spending our money how we want them to?

Just where is these councillors’ moral compass?

One would presume the council is applying some serious time and thought on how to recoup that billion pounds. Or will the city’s public servants continue to ignore taxpayers’ opinions while letting those accountable for the tram sham depart with golden goodbyes without as much as an apology?

It’s all so sadly predictable. And so are the consequences.

* At the time of publication, no one from Edinburgh City Council was available to comment, but we will publish any replies when we receive them.