The worst run city in Britain

Think your town is badly run? Edinburgh's farcical plans to build a tram system have to take the biscuit for the most money wasted by a council anywhere in the UK.

A new competition. This one is for the most incompetent town council in the UK. After careful consideration, I'm going for Edinburgh. You might think this is just because I live in Scotland and almost everyone thinks it impossible for any town to be as badly managed as their own let's not forget that up to £10bn a year is wasted by the nation's useless councillors. But I do think there is a good case to be made here.

Why? The trams.

Many years ago Edinburgh's council decided that the city should have a new tram network. No one was quite sure why (there was little congestion in the city and the buses run very well). But nonetheless the tram was to run from the airport to Haymarket station, from there down the main throughfare (Princes Street) and then through St Andrew Square and on to the relatively deprived area of Leith. It would make transport in the city simple and cheap and, most importantly of all, give an economic boost to its poorest area.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Three years on £440m of the original £545m budget had been spent. 28% of the infrastructure was in place (thanks to endless disputes with contractors and a variety of obscene salaries paid to managers), although it now turns out that much of it has been done wrong and will have to be laid again. The route was changed with poor Leith dropped from the deal. The sparkly new trams that kept arriving from Spain to run on the non existing lines weremothballed or sent to London to work in Croydon.

Then the council met to decide what to do next. Should they mothball the project; cancel it completely; or just keep going to St Andrew Square? First they decided to keep going,with a total estimated cost of £1bn which, given the effort and money spent so far, seemed like the least-bad option to most businesses in the city. Then last week they voted. For something different.

The tram will now stop at Haymarket. It will not even make it to the city centre. It will be loss making. Princes Street will still have to be dug up again: the tram lines laid there are in such an appalling state they are a threat to health and safety. It will still cost £700m. And just for good measure, it will threaten the profitability of Edinburgh's perfectly good bus system. No wonder that when the chairman of the tram project resigned (as almost everyone involved with it has by now) he called it "hell on wheels". And as the final humiliation, the project will now have to hand back contributions made by businesses who had thought they would benefit from the tram, but now won't. That will make the already humiliating miserable numbers worse than they already are.

All this has now prompted one blogger to look at the relative costs of building the tram as originally planned and of paving the streets of Edinburgh with gold instead. And guess what? Going for the gold would be cheaper. Much cheaper. So there you go. On this evidence alone (there is more) I think it would be fair to call Edinburgh, as Alan Cochrane does in the Telegraph, "the worst run city in Britain". All other nominations below please.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.