Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (SKAT) would like to take this opportunity to explain why we are protesting and ask for your understanding and support. This information will attempt to explain the background to our movement and the reasons for our protest.
The idea of a bridge to Skye has been around for a long time and has been the subject of controversy for just as long. There were many who did not want a bridge at all, feeling that it would destroy the romance of the land of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald. There were those who wanted to look forward , get connected to the future and reverse the long-term decline of our area.
While the debate was continuing, it became clear that our ageing ferry service could not cope with the traffic which was increasing yearly. It was at this point that national politics first entered the debate. Over the protests of the islanders (over seven thousand signed a petition against it), the Government decided that we would have a bridge, it would be privately financed and would be a toll bridge.
So that our elected representatives would agree to this idea, the new ferries and 24-hour service which we so desperately needed were denied to us until bridge contracts were signed. Our elected councillors were effectively placed in an armlock and seduced by monetary promises which were never honoured. They were told that without this scheme there would be no bridge for twenty years. They were also told that the road between Fort William and Mallaig would be upgraded to trunk road - it wasn't; they were told the main road through Skye would be adopted by the Scottish Office - it wasn't.
Shortly after contracts were drawn up between Miller Construction, The Bank of America and The Scottish Office the area was designated "Objective One" by the EC. This confirmed it was an area significantly economically disadvantaged and therefore eligible for special assistance for projects like the bridge. A privately financed bridge was not eligible for such EC funding.
In order that Miller and the Bank of America could get the necessary payback and profit, competition to the bridge could not be allowed. Happily for the Government they could arrange for the removal of ferry competition, since they were the only shareholder in Caledonian Macbrayne, they simply ordered the company to cease the service. The Audit Commission recently released a report saying that the bridge project was not value for money as far as the Taxpayer is concerned - the privately financed bridge has cost the Taxpayer almost £15 million!
A public enquiry was held - after the bridge contract had been awarded - and its findings then ignored by the Government. The monopoly was now firmly in place, however to reinforce it, the Government at the behest of the contractors, decided that to stifle anticipated protest non-payment would be a criminal offence. This is unique since with all other toll bridges the offence is a civil one, which means that the operators must pursue the offenders through the civil courts.
By nature the islanders are law abiding and the Government hoped that the use of a "sledgehammer" would subdue the seething anger that was evident. In this as in many things this Government misread public opinion, they should have read their history books, when pushed too far the islanders will fight. SKAT was born out of this anger in much the same way as the activists of Braes and Glendale were driven by circumstance to protest.
Surprisingly this is not a rhetorical question, at issue is whether the Government followed the proper procedures before the bridge opened. This is a complex issue relating to the assignation of the right to collect tolls to Skye Bridge Ltd by the Secretary of State for Scotland. SKAT members are challenging the law in the courts. Sheriff Fraser ruled against our preliminary points and refused leave to appeal in Dingwall. On 11th April 1996 the first trial was held, Andy Anderson was found guilty and has appealed. Recently, SKAT members lost their latest appeal against the tolls, read their Lordships opinions here. We will continue if necessary until we get to the European Courts. It is a measure of the complexity of the issue that although the first "offences" were in October 1995 the first trial had to wait so long. The news section carries the latest legal arguments.
At the latest cases people who had entered a guilty plea were admonished by the Sheriff, who placed the crime at the lowest end of trivia. Many people who have been reported for refusing to pay have never appeared in court. The legal system got so overloaded, that the fiscal deserted many cases. There have been almost 1200 individual cases of non-payment, quite a few protesters have refused to pay on EVERY trip across! Read the Toll Order Assignation statement which supposedly gives the Bridge company the right to collect the toll.
We have been protesting since the first proposals for a Toll Bridge were made in 1991. To date the Government has attempted to steamroller all opposition. We will continue to fight until we have exhausted all possible avenues. We have the unanimous support of our own, and several other councils. If there is the political will then the Bridge can be Toll Free. Before, we fought the Tories who forced the tolls, we are now fighting the Labour Government (who, in their previous Highland Manifesto, said they would abolish the tolls - they haven't). To that end we will fight on, even if it means that some of us have become lodgers in HM prisons, and previously law-abiding citizens of Skye have been branded criminals.
Michael Forsyth, a previous Secretary of State for Scotland stated repeatedly that the Government couldn't afford to make the Skye Bridge toll free, the last Secretary, Donald Dewer, made similar mutterings. The cost to build it has been given at various times as £25 to £37 million pounds, a great deal of money for you or me, in Government terms - nothing. The Government for example paid out over £35 million to Health Care International for a hospital project which promptly collapsed. They paid out in excess of £300 million to pay off the Humber Bridge. Only 10% of the revenue from Road Fund Tax is spent on roads, if the will was there the Government could pay off the Skye Bridge tomorrow.
One of the arguments used against us is why the taxpayer should pay for us to have a free bridge? Fair question. But there is a fundamental difference between a ferry service and a bridge which part of the main road system. We ALL pay road tax, should the M25 be toll? Why not? WE here on Skye don't use the M25, why should we pay for that? The nearest equivalent to our situation is the island of Anglesey, which has a bridge linking it to mainland Wales. Is it a toll bridge? Anglesey is even smaller than Skye is!
There is one solution which would allow the Government to avoid paying the full capital sum for the bridge immediately. Shadow tolling is a device used by the government to avoid large capital outlays. Using this scheme the private contractor builds and operates the scheme and is re-imbursed by the government an amount base on usage. Put more simply it is roads on HP - Scottish Office figures indicate the cost of shadow tolling the Skye Bridge would be £3 million per year. This system is already to be put in place on some other Scottish roads built under PFI. If it's good enough for them, why not for us?
UPDATE, May 2001:- The Bridge has now been functioning with the collection of tolls for over 5 years. The annual Governement subsidy to the Private company in 1999 was £1,600,000 (for regular ticket users). With the decision under the Partnership agreement to freeze tolls, the Government made a further commitment to the company on inflation, which means that on an income of £4 million, if inflation runs at 2.5%, the annual cost will rise by a further £100,000 each year.
The subsidy for 2001 will amount to £1,800,000 and will continue to rise each year thereafter. We now know that the toll will be subject ot VAT (which we said from the start was likely). This is entirely because this is a private service, and would not apply if the toll was abolished. VAT at 17.5% will add £700,000 to the bill in 2001 and bring it up to a total of £2,500,000 and once again increasing each year thereafter.
Indeed, if this scheme continues in its present form by 2011, the Government will have paid £35 million in subsidy, enough to build Portree High School and a leisure centre in Portree and Broadford as well. This huge annual outlay would be sufficient, assuming an interest rate of 6%, to service a loan of £35 million. So what will it cost to buy out the tolls? Sarah Boyack, Transport Minister, can't tell us. However, on the 3rd July 1997, in answer to a written question from Charles Kennedy, the late Donald Dewar said "simply buying out the contract is estimated to cost around £30 million" (Hansard). That was 4 years ago.
Since then the company has had £16 million income from the tolls plus subsidy scheme. If they were demanding £30 milion then, it must be much less now - certainly under £20 million. What is clear is that however hard a bargain the company dirves, the cost of buying out the toll and abolishing it, will save taxpayers' money.
Write to your MP, MSP and MEP if you feel that the Toll charges are unjust. Write to the Scottish Tourist Board, if the tolls put you off coming to Skye.
Make a donation to SKAT to help us continue the fight - small or large it will be most welcome. For details contact SKAT.
Join our protests - watch out for our announcements on up coming demonstrations and court cases. Sign up for our petition to Scottish MPs.
If you are American, write to the Bank of America and protest about how they are basically holding the people of Skye to ransom. Their entirely profit-motivated greedy dealings in the Skye Bridge affair is draining much needed money out of the islands, and could lead to yet another enforced Highland Clearance as people can no longer afford to live or work here. If you are a member of any Highland Society, ak them if they have heard about the protests and see if they can help.
Details of bridge tolls elsewhere in Britain are perhaps the most eloquent statement of why the Skye regime is so uniquely unjust.
|Bridge||Toll for Car|
|Forth Bridge||80p (northbound only)|
|Tay Bridge||80p (southbound only)|
|Itchen Bridge||40p (50p peak)|
|Severn Bridge||£4.20 (westbound only)|
|Tamar Bridge||£1.00 (25p concession)|
|Whitny on Wye||50p|
|SKYE BRIDGE||£4.70 single - winter
£5.70 single - summer
People have asked why should we protest when the toll charges are less than the ferry costs were. Caledonian Macbrayne made profits over the years which were used to subsidise other island ferry services. In its last years these profits were of the order of £1 million per year. The price of the bridge toll was tied to match the ferry fares when the bridge would open, but in the years leading up to the opening the fares were hiked up and up, being increased by 15% above inflation the year before the bridge opened.
On Skye we feel that we have already paid for our bridge and should not be asked to do so again. We did not protest at ferry charges in the main because we were not aware that we were being ripped off by Cal Mac, it is only since the bridge was built that figures have been available. Profits from the bridge now go to the Bank of America not to fellow islanders, and all of us have to make up the loss of Cal Mac profit through general taxation.
Recently the UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee agreed with SKAT that the Bridge was a bad deal for the UK Taxpayer. Read their full report here.
You have a choice, if you feel that the tolls are too high, you can turn round at Kyle, we have no such option. The government is following a long tradition in applying dubious dogma first in an area where they feel they can cope with protest. This project is the thin end of a very thick wedge. Private Finance Initiatives are planned in all areas of the country. Today it is the Skye Bridge - tomorrow a road or school near you?
Is this just another case of "Rent a Mob"? No.
SKAT is made up of islanders and mainland supporters from across the entire social spectrum. We have in the main two things in common - a sense of outrage about the way the bridge regime was set up and run - and a history of being law abiding peaceful citizens. Our members include Councillors, Doctors, Businessmen, Teachers, Local Government Officers, Retired People, Crofters, Hoteliers, Fishermen and workers from all the trades. We are not professional protesters, for most of us this is a new experience. We intend to try and get the tolls removed using any non-violent means possible.
SKAT are a non-political organisation, we have members who are active in all of the political parties and members who are active in none. We fought the Tory Government, and now we fight the Labour one.The issue of the Skye Bridge and its effect on our fragile economy unites all locally based political activists. Our funding comes from donations and from our members. Our protests have been non-violent and good humoured - they will remain that way.
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2001.
Most recent revision, 22 May 2001