Call for tram inquiry

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FORMER Sheffield MP Richard Caborn - who brokered agreements for Stagecoach to take over Supertram and for construction debts to be written off - said he was unaware of full details of the deals and called for an inquiry.

The Star revealed yesterday Stagecoach has paid no rent for Supertram since taking over and may not do so over the lifetime of its 27-year contract, despite the network now making a profit.

The transport giant, which says the formerly loss-making operation is now “financially sound”, has also declined to contribute towards the cost of four extra trams, subject of a current application for Government funding.

And no funds are being set aside to pay for the current fleet’s eventual replacement, which will cost up to £125m.

The revelations today prompted calls by Mr Caborn for an investigation by the National Audit Office into Stagecoach’s £1.15m deal to take over Supertram.

“I think the details of the deal, of which I was not made aware, need to be scrutinised.

“Was the deal in the best interests of the public purse?

“There could be a case for this to be referred to the National Audit Office,” said the former Sheffield Central Labour MP, who was a junior minister in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when the Stagecoach deal was struck in 1997.

He helped broker the agreement with Stagecoach and persuaded then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to write off £81.7m of £97.5m debt left from building the system.

Remaining debt was borne by SYPTE and is due to be paid off next year. Other funding for construction came from the Government.

Mr Caborn helped ensure the agreements were made because the trams were “massively under-utilised and the debt was a big issue”.

He said: “There was a burden of the debt, so fares kept being put up, plus the tram did not link with buses, so people did not use it. It was the butt of jokes on the local comedy circuit.

“The Government agreed to write off most of the debt, lifting that burden.

“It was taken on by Stagecoach as a risk.”

Sheffield Council leader Coun Paul Scriven said: “The deal orchestrated by Labour is at best naive and at worst grossly incompetent. It allows a company to make a tidy profit while taxpayers are sold down the river.”

He called for the contract with Stagecoach, which expires in 2024, to be renegotiated.

SYPTE said the deal with Stagecoach was the best available - the other bidder having put in a worse offer. It said that rather than saving up for a replacement fleet, it would most likely be funded by borrowing or a Government grant.