On Sat. 7th October, SKAT commemorated its 5th anniversary with a gathering at the Skye Bridge Toll Plaza.
Two pipers called us together and 60 - 70 members stood at the barrier to hear Charles Kennedy, MSP and leader of the Liberal-Democrat Party address the group.
In his speech, Charles assured SKAT supporters that his party was still firmly committed to the removal of the tolls. The tolls were a real injustice to the people of Skye, he said, and we must fight on together to get rid of this unacceptable situation.
He complimented the campaigners on achieving some goals including the extra concession on the price of books of tickets and the freezing of tolls at January 1999 prices. He felt there was real hope for removal of the date stamp which, he said, made no sense with the freezing of prices.
Before hurrying off to catch his plane to London, Mr. Kennedy again stressed the need to maintain the fight for justice and assured us of his continuing support for our group.
Our two pipers then led us in a walk across the Skye Bridge. In the lead carrying her Saltire flag, as so often in the past at our demonstrations and marches, was Highland Councillor Margaret Paterson, SNP, of Dingwall, one of our guest speakers. Accompanying us also were our two other guest speakers, John Farquhar Munro, Liberal Democrat MSP for the constituency, and Jean Urquhart, SNP, Prospective Westminster Parliamentary Constituency Candidate.
We were pleased to see in our group several members from Inverness. Recently we have had to abandon our "no-pay" protests since the police now refuse to charge us with this "criminal" activity and we are charged with obstructing traffic. As a result, there is no opportunity for our supporters from further afield to come and join us at the Bridge. It was, therefore, an added pleasure to the day to see a lot of weel kent faces in our group and we thank them for travelling to Skye for this event.
Having arrived on the other side of the Bridge, we made our way to Kyleakin Village Hall. To a warm reception, our three guest speakers in turn gave their views on the Skye Bridge Tolls. Not surprisingly, all were in agreement that the tolls should be removed.
John Farquhar Munro, who has been supportive of the campaign since its inception, reminded us of how the then Highland Regional Council had been given misleading assurances by the then Scottish Office about the conditions relating to the Skye Bridge and that he had been against the tolls from the beginning. He said he would continue to fight against the injustice of the tolls in his present capacity of Member of the Scottish Parliament.
Margaret Paterson, a campaigner for the past 5 years, spoke of the tenacity shown by the protesters in fighting for the removal of the tolls and of many memories of our attendances in Dingwall Sheriff Court and the friendships and mutual support among protesters which had developed over that period. Margaret then read a short poem which stressed the importance of never giving up which, she felt, epitomised our attitude to fighting on until we achieve our goal.
Jean Urquhart then addressed us on our shared and rather frightening experience of becoming a "criminal" for the first time. On a cold winter's day, Jean was astonished and slightly amused, on being charged with refusing to pay the tolls, to be offered a cup of tea by the policeman making the charge. When asked if she intended to repeat the offence on her return journey, Jean replied that she probably would but thought it would be about 3 p.m. before she was back. "That's fine", said the constable, "I'll meet you at the barrier at 3!" It's a story that is consistent with the experience of many of us, illustrating the civilised and good natured style of our campaign and good relations with the police all the way through.
Our meeting ended with our renewed resolve to fight on till we achieve justice with removal of the tolls.
As most Sgiathanachs and other "frequent users" know, it is possible to buy books of 20 tickets for the Skye Road Bridge and this concession allows quite a saving on toll charges provided all the tickets in the book are used.
Unfortunately, many Skye folk don't travel to Inverness 10 times a year. Because there is a date stamp on the book they are left with tickets for which they have paid but which, legally, are invalid and there is nothing for it but to throw them away and lay out another £26 to buy another book of tickets.
Many of us, however, have noticed that, having driven across the Bridge with an out of date book and proferred this to the toll collector, the ticket is accepted "this time", the book is retained by the toll collector and no further action taken against us.
We also heard of one SKAT member who went to the Toll Plaza Office to buy a new book and, presenting his out-of-date book with unused tickets, asked for these to be deducted from the cost of the new book. His request was granted. Good for him. But many people would not feel like challenging the rules in this way, nor should they have to. The rules and concessions should be applied without fear or favour to everyone.
Since Donald Dewar announced the freezing of tolls at January 1999 prices, the purpose of the date stamp has puzzled us. Why bother with a date stamp if the price is going to be the same, presumably, forever? We wrote questioning this seemingly pointless deadline to Sarah Boyack on several occasions. Her response was that the matter was being considered.
On 17th September, our three intrepid investigators, Andy Anderson, Myrna Scott Moncrieff and Dr. Julian Toms decided to test this rule of the date stamp.
All three drove across the Bridge and presented out of date books. Eventually all three had out of date tickets accepted although Andy had his details taken by the police. He has not had any further communication from the Procurator Fiscal.
Andy has since written again to Sarah Boyack pointing out the futility of the date stamp, the waste of money to Bridge users and the anomaly of Toll Staff accepting what is legally invalid. We have been told she is now in negotiations with Bank of America representatives with a view to removal of the date stamp.
In this issue again we say farewell, this time to three of our hardworking SKAT members.
Anyone who has been with SKAT for any length of time will know that Myrna Scott Moncrieff was one of the founder members of this movement. As the first elected Secretary of SKAT she led us through the first years of the campaign and, with one break of some months, has been with us until now. Myrna's boundless energy and enthusiasm for the cause motivated us at all times, even when the outlook seemed hopeless. Indeed, it could be said that she gave a chunk of her life to SKAT as her dedication was total. Sadly for us, Myrna has decided to re-emigrate back to her homeland of Canada. This is a real loss to our movement but we wish her every happiness in her new life.
Equally well known to SKAT supporters are the names Judith and Ron Shapland. Ron worked hard on research into the accounts and financing of the Skye Bridge Tolls and he provided us with invaluable information to strengthen our arguments. Latterly, Ron took on the job of Chairman of SKAT at a difficult period. His wife, Judith, is also well known for her successful efforts in fundraising and many other aspects of the campaign.
Judith and Ron are also moving back to their homeland, in this case Cumbria, to be near their family. SKAT will miss them but wish them all the best for the future.
Still working the Conference circuit, SKAT members took a table at the SNP Conference at the end of September. It has to be said that this is one Party Conference where we don't need to work at getting support and it was heartening to meet so much good will from prominent leaders and ordinary members alike.
Positioned outside one of the two main entrances to the auditorium, we had an excellent opportunity to speak to many of the SNP, including John Swinney the day before he was elected as new leader of the Party. He assured us of SNP's continuing support for our campaign.
We also spoke to Roseanna Cunningham, a long time supporter of our group and now Deputy Leader of the SNP, who is also still firmly on our side.
On the Friday, Andy Anderson was interviewed for BBC NEWS ONLINE and this was duly posted the following day, photograph and all!
We intend to keep in touch with all political parties; being a non-aligned pressure group, we need to get the support of all parties across the political spectrum. And who knows what the outcome of the next Scottish Parliamentary elections will be?
Readers may remember that we petitioned the Scottish Parliament to restore concessions to crofters which CAL MAC had previously given in the days of the ferry, i.e. empty floats returning to Skye from market were given a free passage. We had hoped a comparable concession might be extended to hauliers. It would have been a small concession at negligible cost to the Government but would have helped counteract excessive fuel tax costs.
Sadly, the Transport and Environment Committee, having obtained the views of Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Executive, decided in their wisdom not to recommend that the Scottish Executive negotiate with Bank of America on this matter.
Predictably, the Scottish Executive is against the terms of the petition. Mr. R. Tait, Head of the Transport Division, reports that concessions requested in the petition "would discriminate against" other hauliers and HGVs. He makes much of the fact that the present system makes "books of concession tickets available to all" users. It seems to have escaped their notice that the books of tickets are not an attractive option to one large group of users, i.e. the tourists, who also happen to be our 'bread & butter' industry. To visitors who are here for a few days a book of tickets for 20 journeys back & forth across the Bridge is really excess to their requirements. These potential customers are therefore staying away in droves because of the £11.40 return charge to cross the Bridge.
We had hoped for a more supportive attitude from Highlands & Islands Enterprise. Surprisingly, they take the view that the toll charges represent a small part of the overall costs for businesses and should not be a problem. They go on to say that they consider the high fuel costs in the area to be a greater problem with the knock-on effect that has on the price of goods. HIE quotes a price difference in a basket of food on Skye as 8.5% more than the same goods in Aberdeen. They don't seem to consider that living with 8.5% extra cost on food PLUS the cost of the tolls is a double whammy and not an either/or situation.
As it is, the T & E Committee have decided to recommend that the ending of the date stamp on books of tickets should be implemented at the earliest opportunity. It's a small step but we just keep pushing forward and never give up
The recent announcement by the European Court of Justice that VAT is to be added to the tolls on privately operated roads and bridges was bad news for all but more especially for the Skye Road Bridge. Seventeen and a half per cent on to the highest tolls in Europe, especially when applied retrospectively for 5 years, is a lot of money. The Scottish Executive has said it will absorb the VAT charges which is a relief for the motorists crossing the Skye Road Bridge but is just another burden for the Scottish tax payer.
In our last SKAT NEWS, we reported that Ron had written yet again to Advocate General Alber about Skye's unique position of having tolls on a road where there is no alternative route. AG Alber must be a busy man as he still has not replied. Certainly, the decision on VAT was not taken by M. Alber alone but by a legal committee. However, Andy Anderson has again written to M. Alber to ask why the Skye Road Bridge is treated like no other stretch of road, possibly in Europe. We are interested to see if M. Alber is completely stuck for words to explain this unjust situation.
In the meantime, we are following up a meeting at the SNP Conference with Ian Hudghton, SNP MEP, and Prof. Neil MacCormick, SNP MEP. These two gentlemen listened with interest to our argument that road tolls were intended to provide an optional extra route for those who felt they wanted it and could afford it. They were intended also to relieve congestion on already over-crowded routes. These conditions could never in our wildest dreams be applied to the Skye Road Bridge.
As we all know, the purpose of a tolled road to Skye was to create a precedent for tolled roads and for Public Finance Initiative, so that the exercise could be repeated in other parts of the country. This was clearly a decision based on political dogma, not on environmental or financial need.
We understand that European law states there can be no tolls on roads with no alternative route. However, the British Government found a loophole in this law (the tolls on our public road, A87, are collected by a private operator) and has exploited that loophole to allow it to maintain the tolls on our road. But legal loopholes have been closed in the past and can be so again. We and our two MEPs feel this avenue is worth investigating.
The sad news of the death of Donald Dewar has been recorded by all sections of the media. We would like to add our own words of sincere sympathy to his family.
In the course of our campaign, the holder of the office of Secretary of State for Scotland and, subsequently, First Minister for Scotland, has been the target of many of our criticisms of the handling of the Skye Road Bridge and its tolls.
It has to be said that earlier holders of that office seemed impervious to our pleas for justice. Donald Dewar, however, will be remembered as the one who actually heard our pleas and responded; he increased the concession for books of tickets and froze the charges for all.
Donald Dewar was generally regarded by all politicians as a man of integrity, a man who was aware of the circumstances of those less fortunate in our society. In the case of the Skye Bridge, he did try to help.
In the never ending saga of Mac's case now before the European Court of Human Rights a new refinement in legal contortions has surfaced.
Mac, you may remember, had a problem with the length of time it took for his case (i.e. of refusing to pay the tolls) to be brought before a sheriff. This he considered to be an infringement of his basic human right to have his case heard within a reasonable time.
As reported earlier, Prof. Alan Miller, who specialises in Human Rights law, offered to take Mac's case a sure indication that Mac had serious grounds for his complaint.
Of course, all cases submitted to the ECHR must have exhausted all domestic (in this case Scottish) legal remedies and Mac thought he had done just that.
Unfortunately, part of Mac's case involves the famous letter from the Lord Advocate to the Procurator Fiscal in Dingwall which has a 75 year embargo on it so no one gets to know what's in it till about 2072! This letter, according to ECHR, is an integral part of Mac's "domestic remedy" and they won't look at his case until he has "exhausted" this.
Prof. Miller is still considering this conundrum so if anyone has found the secret of eternal life so that we can keep Mac alive for another 70 odd years, please pass on the information. Mac would really appreciate it.
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A BIG THANKYOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT
In our last issue we asked how you felt about continuing to support SKAT, to receiving SKAT NEWS and whether you wished to make a contribution to our funds.
We were overwhelmed by your response. Many of you wrote with encouraging comments such as "keep up the good fight" and "don't give up". Many also generously donated to our funds and we received a total of over £600. This will go a long way towards all sorts of costs for our campaign and we should like to take this opportunity to say a big "Thank You" to everyone who responded.
Sometimes, at our fortnightly meetings, we are inclined to feel there are not so many activists now and, of course, this is due to the fact that, as we said, we can no longer have the kind of "no-pay" protest demonstrations with big turn-outs which we once so much enjoyed. It is, therefore, very encouraging to those of us still carrying on the fight to know that there is such good will and support out there. We shall do our best to justify your faith in us and in our cause.
As members will be aware, SKAT functions in accordance with the rules of its Constitution, i.e. with elected Office Bearers, decisions taken by democratic voting of members and our accounts are audited annually.
You may therefore be assured that monies sent to us are handled in accordance with these practices. Please continue to keep in touch and give us your views on what's going on with the Skye Bridge Tolls. We are always happy to hear what you think and, indeed, to have your suggestions on what we should be doing.
All at 6.00 p.m.
The Cabin, Portree
An Acarsaid, Broadford
ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING TIGH NA SGIRE, PORTREE
The Cabin, Portree
The Cabin, Portree
An Acarsaid, Broadford
The Cabin, Portree
Andy Anderson Telephone 01470 542 365
John Campbell Telephone 01478 61 2868
We hope you will continue to support us and if you feel like giving some of your own comments on the campaign we'd be interested to hear from you.
Obviously, although we still have some legal bills to pay, there are other costs to be met as well. As you will see from other items in this News, our representatives travel to various locations to meet with politicians, local and national, and attend as many Political Party Conferences as possible as well as meeting with other interested groups of Skye Bridge users to gain their support. On top of this there are phone bills, advertising, printing, stationery, postage, etc. If you feel, therefore, that you could make a contribution, however small, to our funds this would be greatly appreciated. If you don't wish to make a donation but still wish to receive SKAT News then you'll continue to do so.
This is definitely a non-profit making organisation but we would prefer to stay "in the black".SKAT Campaign
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2001.
Most recent revision, 06 January 2001