SKAT claims that this administration's commitment to 'open government' is now as hollow as their campaign promise to 'abolish the tolls on the Skye Bridge as soon as practicable' .
This assertion follows the lamentably poor Scottish Office response to the highly-critical Public Accounts Committee report into the financing of the Skye Bridge and in light of the government's continuing unwillingness to answer simple questions about the project. Notable among these unanswered questions is by how much are toll-payers closer to paying off the bridge than they were when it opened three years ago. SKAT, however, understands why the Scottish Office might be particularly coy about this question since, it seems, that despite the three years of tolling, during which upwards of £12m has been extorted from motorists with no alternative route to and from the mainland, the debt to be paid off has actually grown!
Last week's press statement from the Scottish Office simply re-cycled tired and discredited Tory excuses which somehow argue that that because the tolls are lower than the ferry fares they replaced and because people are using the bridge then everything is just fine. Another Tory bridge project, which happened to come to fruition under this government was the one for the island of Scalpay in the Western Isles. No one ever suggested, nor should they, that the Scalpay people should pay tolls at all, far less ones which were tied to the fares on the ferry which the Scalpay Bridge replaced. That latter principle is unknown anywhere in Britain, yet Skye people who were guinea pigs for the first PFI, have to endure extortionate tolls while other PFI projects benefit from lessons learned from the ham-fisted approach adopted in the case of the Skye Bridge project.
The press statement also avoided telling the people of Skye just how much of the bridge debt they have already paid off, a question which has been asked of the government many times. The problem for the Scottish Office is that the answer might be political dynamite since there are strong suspicions that, because of tax arrangements, inflation and the degree to which toll revenue is being siphoned to pay 'costs of collection' and 'administration' , the debt has not diminished but increased.
Nor can anyone give a satisfactory answer to the question of why a bridge which cost £24m to build, £15m of which was paid by the taxpayer and has raised more than £12m in tolls, will cost the Government £30m to buy out! And if the contract is not bought out by the Government over £71m will be collected by the Bank of America (and their new stablemate the Nations Bank) from toll-payers. The cliche about "the sums not adding up" is literally true in the case of the Skye Bridge.
"Getting satisfactory answers to these questions might help the toll-payer thole the high costs of crossing between Skye and the mainland though I doubt we could ever learn to love the tolls." remarked Drew Millar, Highland Councillor and SKAT Convener. "But being deprived of such information simply makes a mockery of Labour's brave pre-election promises that they are committed to open government."
At a recent conference in Inverness, the Scottish National Party promised to remove the tolls on the bridge and free the people of Skye when they get into power. SKAT appreciates their support, however this is practically the same promise the Labor government gave before the last election, and we still have the tolls...It just goes to show that SKAT are not a politically aligned group as some would have you believe - we'll fight them all to get justice and equality for the people of Skye!
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 1998.
Most recent revision, 07 October 1998