by Amelia Simonini, SKAT Vice-Chair
On Monday 18th November, I had the pleasure, as the representative of SKAT, of attending the Consultation Meeting of the Scottish Executive's Finance Committee in Tigh na Sgire, Portree, when they invited comments on their budget proposals for the years 2003 - 2006. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that SKAT has been invited by the Executive to attend such a meeting and I'm not sure whether it was due to my having complained last year about the almost non-existent publicity for their inquiry into PFI/PPPs. Perhaps it was just another sign of the looming general election on 3rd May next year, an event which tends to produce a sudden burst of goodwill by governments towards the electorate.
For whatever reason, it was good to have the opportunity to put forward our arguments on how we, SKAT, could help to save the Scottish Executive and the taxpayer some money. SKAT have argued for some time now that it is costing quite a lot of money to maintain the tolls on the Skye Road Bridge. In 2000, Jim Wallace agreed with SKAT that the subsidy for books of tickets and the 'freeze' on tolls had cost £1 million and would rise to £1.1 million in 2001 and proportionately year on year thereafter. With the imminent imposition of VAT to comply with EC regulations, this will rise to £2 million a year at today's values.
The consultation in Tigh na Sgire took the form of the representatives of various Skye based groups and several MSPs of all parties being split into "working groups". Mine included The Federation of Small Businessmen, Highlands of Scotland Tourism, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise and Highland Council Economic Development. All had their say on their respective issues but all agreed on one point - the Skye Bridge Tolls were causing problems.
It was interesting to note the surprise and disbelief of the visiting MSPs when I informed them that, while other ferry routes on the West Coast had increased their vehicle numbers by approx. 50% from1995-2001, the Skye Road Bridge had increased by only 8% in the same period as a result of the tolls. They were also interested, as members of the Finance Committee, to realise that over the next 19 years they would spend £38 million in subsidy when, for £23 million, they could possibly buy out the concession and have a toll-free bridge.
I, and the other three members of SKAT who attended, were beginning to feel hopeful at this obvious interest by the MSPs in our facts and figures. However, in the afternoon session, our hearts sank as we were treated to a lecture by Peter Peacock, as Deputy Minister of Finance, on what a wonderful benefit the Bridge had been to Skye. He reminded us of the 2 hour queues of traffic waiting for ferries through the village of Kyleakin (what the people of Kyleakin would give for that now !) and boasted about his Government's reducing the cost of books of tickets. He seemed blissfully unaware of the disastrous effects of the tolls on Skye as reported in the recent Highland Council survey, and - worse - seemed uninterested in discussing them.
Nevertheless, we seemed to have opened a few eyes in Holyrood and stirred some interest in the facts about the Skye Bridge tolls. Most importantly, they now realise that they are getting a very poor return for their precious budget money by propping up a toll system which is draining the Skye economy of up to £5 million a year. So we will keep prodding and arguing and, who knows, maybe yet we will make them see sense.
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2003.
Most recent revision, 05 January 2003