A lengthy campaign against what protesters view as excessive charges to cross the Skye Bridge has spawned a further 500 cases of non-payment on which Wednesday's appeal to the Scottish Court of Session in Edinburgh will turn. The upshot could have significant ramifications for private transport projects elsewhere.
In the face of protests by the 7,000 islanders who signed a petition against it, the bridge project was steamrollered through by the Government under the Private Finance Agreement. Motorists wanting to make the crossing from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on the island, or vice versa, must fork out pounds 5.20 each way in the summer months and pounds 8.60 for the return journey in winter.
Buying a book of 10 tickets reduces the cost to pounds 2.44 for a single journey, but this compares badly with just 40p for crossing the Forth.
Tour coaches pay pounds 37.50 for a single summer journey compared with just pounds 6.50 on the Humber Bridge. HGVs pay pounds 25.40 throughout the year, compared with pounds 1 on the Forth and 60p on the Erskine. What the local protest group, Skat (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls), has dubbed the tartan toll tax is unique among toll schemes - and the poll tax - because non-payment is a criminal, not civil, offence.
Islanders and Highland councillors believe the tolls represent an unfair burden on the travelling public which impinges disproportionately on local people and threatens tourism and economic development.
For those not wishing to risk withholding payment, Skat has advised other ways of registering polite protest, such as paying up to pounds 1 in pennies and the rest in 5p coins, having whip-rounds from other occupants of the car, dropping the change, and asking for receipts.
Andy Anderson, a retired union negotiator, was the first refusenik to be convicted under the 1991 Road and Streetworks Act and fined pounds 30 for each of five charges. In August, Lord McCluskey, sitting as a "sifting" judge, certified that he had raised substantial legal points that should be heard by the three-judge Edinburgh court. After repeated applications to the Scottish Legal Aid Board, he secured legal aid last week.
Aid has been refused for the trials in the pipeline. Two hundred of the pending prosecutions are scheduled to come up for plea in the local Dingwall Sheriff Court on Friday.
The appeal will raise a fundamental constitutional question under article 18 of the Act of Union (1706 in England, 1707 in Scotland), which lays down that no excise can be levied in Scotland which is not raised in England. Precedents have been set in England over bridgeable inshore islands. There are no tolls on the bridges linking the Isle of Grain or the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.
The other main ground of appeal flows from the Scottish Office's alleged failure to follow proper procedures under the 1991 Act which means, Mr Anderson's lawyers will argue, that toll operators Miller Civil Engineering, who built the bridge, have no legal warrant to stop people and demand money.
Skat's legal organiser, Robbie the Pict, who changed his name in protest at the 1981 Immigration Act which made Scots "citizens" rather than subjects of the UK, said: "This is a civil rights protest. It is the right to challenge a bad tax law."
Mr Anderson, 57, said that just like the poll tax, Scotland was being used as guinea pig under the Act. "Contained within it is the criminalisation of anyone who refuses to pay the tolls. Why does this Government, in a democratic country, feel it is necessary to do that? They are experimenting like they did with the poll tax. There's no way we are going to accept that. I'm no criminal."
The Government argues that the toll charges are less than the old ferry service. But Skat members feel that they have effectively paid for their bridge already, through the high charges levied by the ferry operator Caledonian Macbrayne. It was this company's major shareholder, the Bank of America, that put up the finance for the bridge in conjunction with Miller. Once the bridge opened last October, Caledonian Macbrayne ceased the ferry service, ensuring a handsome payback and no competition.
If Mr Anderson loses, it could give the green light to the Government to impose similar arrangements elsewhere.
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