SKAT Newsletter September 1997
Well here we are again at the back end of "the season". Lots of tourist businesses are complaining about trade being appreciably down on last year. While we all accept that the Highlands, as a whole, have not enjoyed the level of trade seen in previous years, it is galling to see cars come up to the toll booth and turn around on seeing the extortionate prices. The government have tried to gloss the high toll over with the promise of a further reduction for "frequent users". A when, Donald and at what further cost to the British taxpayer.? One wonders what the government's problem with coming clean and investigating fully the whole bridge question. Perhaps the problem does not fully lie within the government and maybe, instead, with the officials, Scottish Office et al. After all, civil servants don't change like governments.
The law's tactics have changed over the summer with the usual reading of rights and booking by the constabulary before allowing passage through the wide lane changing to the Bridge Company refusing passage and the police "taking your particulars for the fiscal" and ordering the Company to allow you passage to now taking your particulars and refusing you passage making you effectively a prisoner on or an exile of Skye. This change in policy followed the outcome of the Maclean-McGugan Crown appeal in the High Court which challenged the point that the toll order does not actually specify who is liable to pay the toll. A niggly point perhaps, but criminal law must be exact and this was not. The appeal court fudged up the whole case and said that when the law was passed they were sure that they meant the driver was liable. Sorry but you cannot do this in criminal law. In the words of Sherif James Fraser "the law must mean what it says and say what it means."
The next few months are going to be very busy for the campaign. Making the best use of the excellent work done by the Legal Committee in preparing the first in the series of investigations into all aspects of the bridge is the joint priority of both the legal and political committees. The campaign has to make sure that those people who make the decisions have both sides of the story here and eventually in Europe. Here, a good opportunity arises when the Public Accounts Committee debates the NAO report on November 17th in the House of Commons and again when the Government eventually sets about reducing the tolls.
The weekly SKAT advertisement is now to appear in the Thursday edition of the Press & Journal (on page 3). This is being tried as a way of cutting costs. Some adverts will still appear from time to time in the Free Press though in a much smaller ad.
A Summer of Discontent
The summer saw some particularly successful protests on the bridge with a lot of new people refusing to pay. Well done to all. One particularly hot Saturday afternoon in July the Kyleside queue led back into Kyle and the Police decided that enough was enough and ordered the raising of the oncoming barrier allowing many cars onto the island for nothing. A nice boost to some lucky people's holiday.
After another Saturday protest the Police lifted Robbie the Pict, being one of the last to leave the "scene", after waiting all afternoon. SKAT crew were soon recalled and the panda car which arrived to collect Robbie had it's exit blocked from Kyle's second Police Station (The bridge company's office) by a line of sitting SKATters. Another panda car arrived to remove said "criminal suspect" and it too had it's movement hampered by sitting protestors. There was then, unfortunately , a small scuffle, which was thankfully captured on videotape for posterity by a TV cameraman. The point having been made, the car was allowed passage to Dingwall where Robbie spent the Sunday and his 50th birthday in the clink before appearing before the court on the Monday.
A wee history lesson
It all started with an off-the-shelf company called BASECHECK which changed it's name to Miller Civil Engineering Ltd on the 11th November 1991 which took over all the business of Miller Construction, part of the Miller Group Ltd.
The new Company was set up with £5 million of share capital, all owned by the Miller Group.
During this period there was a lot of activity with the signing of the Development and Concession Agreements between Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd and the Scottish Office on the 16th December 1991. This was the same day that a contract was signed Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd. and the Joint Venture of DYWIDAG and Miller Civil Engineering Ltd to build the Skye Bridge with a separate agreement to operate and maintain "the crossing".
Strangely enough by the 5th March 1992 the Directors of Miller Civil Engineering Ltd. resolved to:
1. Dispense with the holding of an AGM in 1992 and all subsequent years.
2. Dispense with the laying of accounts before the AGM in 1992 and all subsequent years.
3. Dispense with the appointment of auditors.
During 1992 the Company lost £655,00 and on the 1st January 1993 all business was transferred to the parent company The Miller Group Ltd and Companies House was informed that the Company was Dormant!
They are supposed to be employing the staff to collect the tolls at the bridge! Why go to all this trouble to set up a company only to take the decision less than four months later to make it dormant again? Answers, please, in a plain brown envelope to Ron Shapland!
One of this summer's big fundraising event's for SKAT has been the Prize Draw which attracted some very generous prizes. The draw was made by Charles Kennedy MP and Ray Miche MP in Inverness on Saturday the 30th August.
The twenty prize winners were as follows: Kylerhea Self-Catering-Ashley Swanson, Thurso. Sligachan Self-Catering - Linda Ferrie, Glasgow. Dinner, B&B at Dunorin House - William Macleod, Lairg. P. McDermott Painting - Peter Paget, Stein. Bunkhouse Accommodation - Moira Robertson, Carlisle. Isle of Skye Books - MF Macrae, Kyleakin. Dinner at Crofter's Kitchen - Mark Maynard, Somerset. £50 Skye Brewery Vouchers - K Lindau - Berlin. Old Schoolhouse Dinner - Major Lind, Forres. Susan Walker Painting - L Rhodes, Essex. £30 Voucher Sea Thrift - P. McMurray, Glasgow. 3 Signed books - Kenny MacKinnon, Portree. Dinner at Castle Moil - Mary Smith, Broadford. £25 Aros Voucher - Debbie Thain, Inverness. Fig Tree Dinner - A M Scott, Leicester. £25 Sutherlands Voucher - Martin MacDonald, Inverness. Hairbase Cut & Blow Dry - R Taylor - Broadford. Bike Hire - S E Rimmer, Cheshire. £25 Eisd Voucher - M Wilson, Lincolnshire. Whisky Decanter - R Parker, Cardiff.
All the winners have now been contacted and are, we're sure, delighted with their winnings.
The organisers wish to thank all prize contributors, the people who sold tickets at events and venues, the hotels & B&Bs who kept the tickets and most of all to all who bought tickets to help further the aims of SKAT.
The monthly 999 club prize draw also took place on the same day. The winners were: £100-Kyleakin(373), £50-Glasgow(353), £20-Dunvegan(194), £10-Drumfern(161), £5-Kyleakin(92). It is worth remembering that, for many people (the editor included!) the first six months of the 999 club is up and if people wish to continue having their numbers drawn they must send money for another six months before the last Saturday of September.
A Tender Process
SKAT is actively collating the whole bridge saga in a series of documents to bring the whole bridge story up to date. The first document was released on Monday last week (15th September). It outlines the whole tendering process and what a stitch-up it was. Of the three major newspapers were covering the release - Scotsman, P&J & Herald only two subsequently ran the news item. It seems strange to send a reporter all the way to Skye and then not use the material or does it come too close to some of the friends of the Tory Newspaper concerned? The National Audit Office has also subsequently been in contact. Were there things they did not know or were not told during the last administration?
Some of the points covered were :-
Did all of the prospective bidders get the same time to prepare their tenders ?
NO. It can be proven that Miller Construction, Morrisons, Trafalgar House, The Bank of America and AG Dywidag were aware of the JMP reports at least one year in advance of the tendering process allowing an unfair advantage over the other interested parties (who totalled 44) in preparing their tender. The invitation to tender appeared in the European Journal on 31st October 1989 with a closing date of seven weeks later on the 22nd December. Their initial designs bore an uncanny resemblance to that of the design outline provided by JMP consultants.
Curiously Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd was set up on the 9th October 1989.It had an original name of "Stirtrad" changing to Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd on the 6th December 1989. They must have been very sure of their bid!
Did all of the prospective bidders ultimately tender to the same project specifications?
NO. With the selection of Miller Dywidag as the preferred bidder the Scottish Office did not have any option to revert to another contractor. They therefor had no way to deal with any deadlock that they might encounter without starting a new competition or abandoning the idea of a PFI which would never do! This had a considerable effect on the terms and conditions laid out initially.
Their financing arrangements were assisted by the government including the arrangement of a favourable loan from the European Investment Bank
A fixed cost of £6 million was to be made towards the cost of the approach roads as the state contribution. In fact this contribution was nearly doubled by the addition of an extra £5.2 million
A 20 year maximum toll period was specified and "there would be no consequent adjustment to the concession period" in case of falling traffic figures. This period has now changed to a 27 years maximum.
Initial designs should include a navigation envelope of 36m high by 80m wide. This was, however, subsequently reduced to 30m high considerably reducing cost - some 58m of road length went or 10% of the total length saving around £2 million. The lowering also did away with the need for ramping, saving a further £4.2 million. The small bridge was originally to be a causeway. This became the Carrich Bridge or viaduct as built by Miller Dywidag costing an extra £1.9 million. The public enquiry held at the time added £2.9 million on to the cost so the net result should have been a reduction in cost of £1.4 million from the original JMP estimates of £17.6 million (which includes a contingency £1.9 million).
Was the whole truth told at the public enquiry ?
NO. The Scottish Office representative, one Mr Innes, who signed all the contracts and documents relating to the Skye Bridge said that Cal-Mac's costs & revenues were not broken down to route level and that they were commercially confidential. (familiar?). "It is possible that the subsidy to Cal-Mac might have to increase in 1995 depending on the consequences to other routes of the relocation of the Kyle-Kyleakin ferry"
The JMP reports make it clear that it was possible to separate out the costs showing a net profit of over £785,00 in 1985. Mr Innes was aware of the documents and so must have knowingly lied to the public inquiry. We hope he is not now misleading Donald Dewar! Incidentally in 1996-97 Cal-Mac's subsidy increased by £1 million to reflect loss of earnings on the route. Have the ferries been relocated yet?
If the Skye ferries as a whole operated at a loss then there could be no question that an increase in subsidy would be required. With such a profit on one route, how could the government justify the years of fare increases over the rate of inflation. Could it be so they could say "the toll is cheaper than the ferry" and anyway have the people of Skye and their visitors not already paid dearly for the bridge?
Did the final cost come close to the original estimates ?
NO. Well - we don't know. At 1991 prices the estimated cost including contingencies was £21 million.
The money which has been put into the project was as follows:
Scottish office £15,000,000
European Investment Bank £12,500,000
Bank of America £?,???,???
Coming to£351/2 million at least. Not bad eh? Assuming the worst-case price where did the other £141/2 million go?
The forecast total payments by users to Skye Bridge Ltd comes to £24 million net after the ridiculously high cost of collection of the toll they managed to incur a loss for a turnover of over £3 million in 1996. This £24 million coupled with the taxpayers £15 million input comes to £39 million of a total payment (net). This for a project which at worst would have cost £21million
It is interesting to note that, with the revenues collected thus far and the Scottish Office Investment, the worst-case cost of the bridge has already been paid for.
The disparities between the figures are frightening - the original JMP would have included an element of profit in the price for the construction company. This means the consortium stands to make an extra £18 million . This is an unacceptable drain on the economy for a fragile area and it should be asked why the Government and Civil Service were so keen to impose it. How did they manage to persuade the European Investment Bank that this was the best way forward. It is now clear why there was no comparison between Private and Public schemes by the Scottish Office as clearly this "privately" funded scheme would have lost to any fair comparison on value for money.
So where did the rest of the investment money go anyway?
"Last year marked a milestone for the family run firm (Miller Group) when it returned to the black to the tune of £4 million after suffering pre-tax losses of £4.4 million the year before."
"For the six months to June this year the company enjoyed a £133 million turnover. With £34 million in the bank it looks certain to expand operations"
- Scotsman Business Supplement 4th September 1997
A construction company which emerges from a recession with £34 millions in cash is unusual indeed but it could explain some of the disparities in the above figures. Millers have preferred bidder status on five other PFI projects at the moment, if they all turn out to be such goldmines as the Skye Bridge project it might be a good time to invest in shares in the company!
Was it value for money and did the taxpayer get the best deal?
NO. Now there's a surprise! From what we have said the taxpayer got a hellish deal and a public financed project would have been far cheaper. The profit from the ferry has been mentioned previously - Brian Wilson , new Minister of State at the Scottish Office, and now surprisingly silent on the subject, put the cost to the taxpayer in the pages of the West Highland Free Press on 24th May 1996:
"The new subsidy figures for Caledonian MacBrayne have been awaited with interest and should now form part of a major component in the National Audit Office's inquiry into the true cost of the Skye Bridge.
There has never been an admission before of just how much profit the Kyle-Kyleakin crossing made. Many of those who paid through the nose for so long may be less than delighted by the confirmation that they were providing Cal-Mac with a surplus in the region of £1.25 million per year....
This is not a one-off factor. Cal-Mac, if it is to avoid passing on to passengers the cost of losing the Kyle-Kyleakin route, will continue to require an annual £1.25 million extra subsidy.
This does not just affect Skye and its environs. If £20 million more is going to Cal-Mac as a cost directly attributable to the way the bridge has been financed, then £20 million less will be available for other desirable projects around Scotland.
How can this be anything other than a rotten deal for the taxpayer? ..."
The next report will look at the operation of the bridge and the legal process attached with it raising many questions:
Copies of this report are available for the princely sum of £3.50 (cheques payable to SKAT) from SKAT News, Sconser, Isle of Skye. This offer has the exception of Miller Construction and associated companies who can pay their more usual figure of £50 for someone else's hard work.
Jimmy Plays Hide & Seek
Sheriff Fraser, still smarting from the bloody nose delivered by superweight Lord Rodgers, returned to SKAT bashing in Dingwall this month. After listening, with apparent interest, to Advocate Hammond and consulting cosily with his cronie Hingston, Jimmy threw out Sandy Coghill's competency point concerning the level of tolls as laid down by statute. Apparently Hingston had shown his sidekick Jimmy how to calculate future levels at an earlier point in the campaign, obviously using a crystal ball to work out the RPI. The Fiscal said that the level could be discovered by "taking the age of your Granny and multiplying it with the weight of a Martian". Obviously he is still using family connections to keep him pepped up for his duties.
It was clear that Jimmy was leaving any decision on competency to Sheriff Scott who is taking a month before deliberating on Robbie the Pict's five competency points due to be heard on the 5th of October. He doesn't want his name heard back in Edinburgh. Not for a while.
It is easier to fight the "enemy" bearing weapons than the one bearing perceived gifts. This is, for SKAT, the problem in the new political scene. The New Labour Government considers the toll question resolved with the promise of reduced tolls. For the SKAT campaign reduced tolls is only the beginning of the resolution. Battle lines are drawn.
We scored a victory in court that was snatched away from us. Almost all court cases have been dropped. A gift? We have been promised toll reductions that have yet to materialise. A gift? The perception is that the toll reductions have been made and "regular users" are paying half price. SKAT sent letters out to remind those who are called upon to comment on these matters that this has not happened and to urge them to correct this perception. Where it applied, as for example to the Convener of the Highland Council and the Skye councillors to reiterate Highland Council Policy of "No Tolls".
To bring the whole question of the tolls into the public arena once again, SKAT organised a Public Meeting which was due to take place on September 4th in Portree based around the Referendum for a Scottish Parliament. Representatives from Highland Council, the Government, the Western Isles Council, the No-No campaign and the Yes-Yes campaign were invited. Radio Personality Lesley Riddoch agreed that the Skye Bridge Toll question needed debating in whatever context and agreed to chair the meeting. Due to the suspension of all debate on the referendum question, SKAT was forced to cancel the meeting. The Government, who has received repeated requests from SKAT to come to Skye to meet the people, were thus saved from having to explain why no-one could be found to represent them at the meeting.
Next month sees the second anniversary of the SKAT campaign. Plans are ongoing to mark this anniversary. The Government says no to shadow tolling. The Government says no to the social obligation to the people of Skye, Lochalsh and the Western Isles to abolish these tolls. No gifts here but then we are not campaigning or expecting gifts perceived or otherwise. We are looking for justice. The Government asked us recently to trust them and give a Yes-Yes vote. The people are asking the Government for justice and are asking for a Yes - a pledge to abolish the tolls on the Skye Bridge.
Myrna Scott-Moncrieff has resigned as secretary for SKAT and is returning to University to finish a course. We wish her well at her studies and thank her for all her work since the start of SKAT. No successor had been found at the time of going to print.
Robbie the Pict has resigned his post as legal secretary. He had to stand down due to strict bail conditions placed on him by the courts. We thank him for his considerable efforts and never-ending "ferreting" for information. John Campbell has taken up the post.
Though they have resigned they are still SKAT crew working towards the goal of a toll-free bridge.
The SKAT AGM is to be held in the Royal Hotel, Portree on Saturday 8th November for the election of office bearers
The Listed Building
The cottage on Eilean Ban has recently had work started on it to make it wind and watertight. This is a listed building and as such must be kept in a good state of repair by it's owner. The house was previously owned by Mr Kwik-Fit - Tom Farmer who sold the island for a hefty profit. The onus is now on the Scottish Office (and so the taxpayer) to pay for work on the building, however when they took over the ownership of the island the house should have been in a good state of repair. It wasn't so should the previous owner not be called to foot the bill. In any other case they would. Incidentally, the bill at the moment is to the tune of £50,000.
The highly waited for McGugan/Maclean case was finally deliberated in the High Court in Edinburgh over the liability question. The "opinion" of Lord Rodgers and his mates delivered a botched case and the crown's appeal was upheld and sent back to Dingwall for the PF to continue the prosecution. Surprise, surprise - on the advice of the Lord Advocate it was subsequently deserted by a much disgruntled Procurator Fiscal. Why was this advice given - was it that they were too frightened to prosecute. Could the repercussions in Europe be too much?
After this, discretion to prosecute by the Dingwall Court was given and, with many citations being dropped, there have been a lot fewer cases being heard. There seems no rhyme or reason for some of the remaining ones especially when some of these people have had some of their other cases dropped. For the same offence. Consistency is not the order of the day.
Two crew members have bail orders applied for non-appearance at Dingwall. This means that they cannot be seen in crowds of more than a certain number of people and if they should offend in any way they will end up in the clink. However, not all protesters who have failed to turn up at court have had bail orders served of them.
There are two appeal cases waiting for dates for the High Court after passing the first stage of the sifting Judge. These are on points of 1, who is liable to pay the toll and 2, the operating company's authority to collect the toll.
The first point is similar to the McGugan/Maclean case except that it is the defendant who is appealing and not the crown. This was originally heard before the McGugan/Maclean case and yet is still in limbo. When the Crown appealed they got a hearing within twelve days, however in this case the defendant has been waiting for four months with no dates yet given. When The People want a second opinion the paperwork trail does a magnificent job of holding up proceedings. Both these cases could end up in Europe which could explain some stalling.
The current procedure for non-payment at the booth is somewhat of a stalemate. If you do a non-payment then you may be liable for obstruction and non-payment of the toll and passage will be refused. This means that when the Kylerhea ferry crossing stops for the season, passage off the island is therefor effectively blocked. While this route is not a viable alternative many people on, say trips to Inverness, have been using it rather than hand over cash at the booth. Not much of a choice really!
(c) SKAT, 1997
Last revision 13 March 1998