A reminder of the protracted battle for justice over the hugely controversial Skye
Bridge came this week with the news that a leading figure in it is scaling down his
involvement. Happily, Robbie the Pict's decision does not signify the collapse of
opposition to the toll charges which have been lining the pockets of private investors
since the permanent road link between the mainland and the island opened in 1995, and will
continue to do so for years to come unless a public buy-out can be effected.
The campaign by SKAT still goes on.
There is no question, however, that Robbie the Pict's unstinting efforts will be missed. He has spent three and a half years working unpaid on putting the protester's case - a demonstration of massive personal commitment - but feels the time has come to bet back to earning a living. No one can criticise him for that. He has more than done his bit.
Certainly, there are many, many people in the Highlands and Islands who would go along with the proposition that this inaugural PFI deal is crying out to be closely scrutinised in open session.
Robbie, who is currently living in his 1981 Mercedes car after selling his caravan to raise a £500 deposit to stand for the Scottish Parliament elections, believes after three-and -a half years the case for abolishing the tolls on the bridge, which was built under the Private Finance Initiative, is cut and dried. He is urging the new parliament in Edinburgh to open a public enquiry into the whole project.
Robbie also claimed this week that the Scottish Office had suppressed a 1988 consultant's report which showed that the bridge could be built for £11 million, less than half the cost of the privately-funded development.
The 51 year old, who has worked unpaid since 1995 on the Skye Bridge tolls issue, now intends to earn a living by becoming a community lawyer.
He said: "Law has got far too expensive and the legal system is outwith the purse of the ordinary person. That is not good enough and I am going to have a go at demystifying it."
Interestingly, out of the mountain of facts and figures gathered by Robbie the Pict to support the cause he has been fighting so tenaciously, the information he produced on the day he announced his reduced input into the campaign shone a particularly illuminating beam on the whole bridge issue.
Bearing in mind that the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Scottish Office for not presenting a public sector comparator to the PFI scheme and that Road Directorate officials subsequently admitted none had been commissioned, the redoubtable Robbie revealed there had, in fact, been one after all. He says the former Highland Regional Council ordered a feasibility study which, in 1988, concluded a bridge could be built for £7,060,000, but the total project would cost £10,120,000 - about half what the contract ended up costing under private funding, even allowing for inflation. Furthermore, he alleges the Scottish Office suppressed the study's finding, which raises an intriguing question if it proves to be true.
Now Robbie the Pict wants the newly elected Scottish Parliament to authorise a public inquiry into the Skye Bridge, something that the Westminster appointed Secretary of State for Scotland had previously resisted.
Robbie's withdrawal from the Skye Bridge spotlight comes as the battle to end the tolls
is set to take a different twist.
Drew Millar, chairman of SKAT, said despite Robbie's decision to devote less time to the campaign the fight would continue. But the organisation would have to reassess its campaign in the light of the make up of the Scottish Parliament.
"SKAT will be having a meeting once the Scottish Parliament settle down to see what is going to happen and see what the tactics are going to be in the future. We are just not going to give up."
"Non-payment doesn't work anymore. We have to change our tack and have a major rethink on how we carry on the campaign and keep it at the forefront of the Parliament. We need to highlight the need for a public inquiry."
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 1999.
Most recent revision, 18 May 1999