by Dawn Thompson
The estimated final cost of the Skye Bridge under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was confirmed by the Scottish Executive yesterday as £128million - more than 10 times the figure initially quoted.
There were claims that Scottish taxpayers would have to pay out at least that amount in lost tolls if the Skye Bridge tolling regime were toppled in the courts. Anti-toll campaigner Robbie the Pict said that the Westminster Government had washed its hands of responsibility, placing it firmly on the shoulders of First Minister Donald Dewar and Scotland alone.
The Highland councillor for Skye West, Allan Beaton, described the sum as "grossly indecent". He said: "Anything that's got PFI against it stinks, as far as I'm concerned. I'm surprised that it has been admitted. I'm also glad that somebody has, at last, admitted it. It demonstrates what a farce the whole system of this PFI is."
His comments came after confirmation that the final estimated cost of the Skye Bridge under PFI was to be £128million - against the £10.5million initially quoted and the £23.6million repeatedly stated as the cost by the Government.
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said that the figure of £128million was "an estimate made to tolling income assuming a 6% per annum inflation rate over the life of the contract. Inflation has been and is nowhere near that rate."
Mr Pict claimed that, were his attempts to challenge the regime in the courts successful, £27million on top of the £128million would have to go to Calmac as compensation for the company's not running ferries to Skye, He said the burden of the bill would fall north of the border, given a reply to a letter he had written to Scottish Secretary John Reid asking whether matters relating to the bridge were devolved.
Mr Reid's office had replied: "The short answer to your enquiry is that, following devolution last July, the Secretary of State is no longer responsible for road-tolling legislation, which has been devolved to the First Minister."
Mr Pict argued that meant that, with the Bank of America - which owns the toll concession and is paid from the money collected at toll booths - due £128million in expected income if the legality of the toll regime fell, the burden of covering it would fall on Scotland alone.
He argued that the prospect of paying such a huge sum was what lay behind his failure, so far, to have the tolling system declared illegal in the courts. "There seemed to be an agenda coming from on high from the Lord Advocate's office that was scaring judges and sheriffs.
"It's a Westminster experiment in Scotland - like the poll tax. The way they're trying to keep the pressure on and put extra pressure on the Lord Advocate and First Minister is to say: 'If you let this slip through and let up these prosecutions, it'll come out of your Scottish block grant. Do you convict someone for a £5.70 offence or do you cough up £128million plus and everyone loses their job and gets a red face?"
"The Crown's vested interest, if it were reflected in betting terms, would mean you had 25million to one against you not being convicted."
He said the taxpayer should not be made to fork out if the tolling regime should fall. Instead, he called on the Bank of America to take only the cost of the bridge plus a modest percentage, and put the whole thing down to experience. We should not be paying for their education, he said.
The Scottish Executive spokesman said that the change to devolution would make no difference to the amount that Scotland had to pay. He said: "It's not going to cost the taxpayers in Scotland more than it would have done before."
It was his understanding that any payment to the Bank of America would always have come out of the money channelled into Scotland from the Treasury.
Click here to see a copy of the questions placed by, and replies back to the National Audit Office, Scotland.
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2000.
Most recent revision, 16 April 2000