by David Perry
A government admission that the European Commission is likely to win its fight to add VAT to Skye Bridge tolls sparked a furious reaction last night in the Highlands.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy warned: "The imposition of VAT on tolls could be the final straw for the Skye economy." The MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West said that tolls are already keeping thousands of tourists on the mainland.
He added: "The Government have got themselves in a mess. The sooner the tolls are ruled illegal and are lifted from the bridge, the sooner the Skye economy can start recovering from the damage that they have caused."
Highlands and Islands Liberal Democrat MSP John Farquhar Munro said the bridge was a lifeline to the communities that use it. He asked: "When will Europe realise that harmonisation is all very well, but when it is to the detriment of communities the practice fails to match the theory."
Robbie the Pict, of Skye Against the Tolls Legal Group said: "I hope this is the straw that breaks the camel's back and that there will be a re-examination of a fraudulent rip-off."
He claimed that adding VAT to the tolls would turn a disaster for the island economy into a catastrophe. Portree councillor Drew Millar said: "This is going to be absolutely disastrous not only for residents but for hauliers and buses and a further blow to our tourist industry."
He said one survey showed that 50 cars a day heading for Skye were turning around because of the cost of the crossing and students recently counted 65 doing a U-turn.
And Mr Millar warned it would be bound to affect the price of goods on Skye and the Western Isles. Car drivers will have to pay £13.40 for a return trip over the bridge and buses nearly £100 if the European Court of Justice accepts Brussels' case for imposing the tax on road and bridge tolls across Europe.
The current charges of £5.70 and £41.20 each way are the highest in the UK and probably the EU.
The Commission's aim is to raise a huge sum from tolls on continental motorways. But the ruling expected in September will take in Skye Bridge tolls as well.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey, a senior Government minister, warned the House of Lords that the European Court of Justice usually agrees with the opinion of the Advocate-General - who has already said VAT must apply.
But a Treasury spokeswoman insisted this did not mean the Government is throwing in the towel. She claimed there are occasions when the court disagrees with its law officer.
She revealed that the Treasury is already planning to delay imposing the tax for a further year - and will pick up the tab for back-tax for the last four years, plus interest, demanded by Brussels.
The charge on road and bridge tolls would raise just £10million across the UK, said the spokeswoman.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who joined in the Lords exchanges on the threatened tax, said: "Of course the Government are going to lose. The Commission always win."
He added: "Skye has a lot of problems without this nonsense. It is bound to discourage more visitors. The whole of the West Highlands economy is frail and the last thing we need is this sort of disadvantage imposed by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels."
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2000.
Most recent revision, 02 July 2000