The freeze on Skye Bridge tolls in the official coalition document was being seen by
many in the Highlands and Islands last night as an attempt by the Government to avoid
debate on the subject in the Scottish Parliament.
It was also widely perceived as a bid to pre-empt demands for abolition of the tolls and a public inquiry into the whole project.
Before the election the Labour Party appeared unwilling to do or say any more on the bridge, although it is now understood in the last few days they had resolved to deliver the toll freeze with or without a coalition agreement. But the Liberal Democrats had campaigned on a clear manifesto commitment to abolish the tolls.
The agreement which they have now both finally signed states: "We will seek to ensure that there are affordable air and sea links to Scotland's island communities. In respect of the Skye Bridge, a discount scheme aimed at local users and freight traffic is now in place and we will review its effects."
"In the meantime we have decided to freeze tolls at their current levels in cash terms for the remainder of the contract."
The contract could last a maximum of another 23 and a half years, although it could be paid off in 12 or 13 years.
Meanwhile the issue of the Private Finance Initiative which was launched in Scotland with the Skye Bridge and which was to bitterly divide the parties in the recent election campaign, rates only a brief and rather generalised mention:
"We accept that public/private partnerships will continue to be one of the ways used to increase innovation and investment in public services where this approach represents best value. We will continue to work to improve the operation of public/private partnerships, and will seek opportunities for new types of partnership and flexible contracts which will allow assets, when appropriate, to revert to public ownership. Our priority will be delivering high quality public services while protecting the interests of the community."
But it's understood that traffic volumes and financial performance on the crossing have been higher than expected and the government's made it plain in private it's now prepared to underwrite the permanent freezing of prices.
Alistair MacLean, spokesman for SKAT, said he was puzzled by the decision. "Certainly it seems strange that if this has come out from the Labour Party eight days after the election, and they had known the bridge was making so much money, why didn' t they freeze the tolls before the election?"
"What I strongly suspect is they really don't have a clue what is going on and they make up the rules as they go along."
One who is still determined to fight the Skye Bridge issue is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West John Farquhar Munro, one of three Lib Dem MSPs who refused to sign the agreement.
"If this is an attempt to quell debate on the bridge it will not work. I was elected on a commitment to abolition and I will continue to fight for that."
"I will also be pressing for the establishment of an independent inquiry into this particular PFI, which is something I would have thought Mr Dewar would have welcomed as it would show the public the true nature of the contract he had inherited from the Tories."
"I would hope to win support from members across the Parliament for my
efforts. There is a lot that is good in the agreement with Labour, but I campaigned
particularly strongly on two of our commitments, tuition fees and the Skye Bridge. That
was why I could not sign it."
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 1999.
Most recent revision, 18 May 1999