Bridge to Skye takes its toll on angry islanders

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The Independent Online

"Skye is the only place in the world where you get mugged and get a receipt." This is the claim of the island's residents, who for six years have been fighting the biggest campaign of civil disobedience Britain has seen.

"Skye is the only place in the world where you get mugged and get a receipt." This is the claim of the island's residents, who for six years have been fighting the biggest campaign of civil disobedience Britain has seen.

It has been a hard-fought battle against the machinations of government and corporate culture over a project that, although largely forgotten outside the Highlands, is costing taxpayers millions of pounds. And the fight could be repeated all over Britain.

Skye, a community of 10,000 people, lies less than a mile from the Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland. It is an island of rugged beauty, steeped inromantic fiction, with an economy driven by the tourist trade.

By the late 1980s the increase in the number of visitors keen to follow in the steps of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and escape over the sea to Skye, had outpaced the car ferries serving the island. Many of the islanders ­ not all ­ called for a bridge to be built across the strait to the mainland.

The Conservative government of the time agreed, but there was a catch. The bridge was to be the first project built under the private finance initiative (PFI), in which an outside company would construct the crossing and charge a toll to recoup its money. It was then that trouble started.

Without the PFI, the islanders were told, there was no possibility of a bridge for at least 20 years. They were also told that the main route between Fort William and Mallaig would be upgraded to a trunk road and that the main road through Skye would be adopted by the Scottish Office. Neither promise was fulfilled but the project went ahead, with £15m of taxpayers' money in addition to £13m from the European Investment Bank, £7.5m from private investors, £6m from a commercial bank and £500,000 from the contractors.

When the bridge opened in October 1995, Caledonian-Macbrayne, the government-subsidised ferry operator that had been the sole transport link, ceased operations, forcing all traffic over the bridge.

Faced with a fait accompli, the islanders might have accepted the position had the controllers of the bridge, The Bank of America, not levied what amounted to the highest road toll in the world. It is currently £5.70 each way. The islanders formed the pressure group Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (Skat) and challenged the levy as a breach of the 1707 Act of Union, which was supposed to guard against unfair taxes being raised in Scotland. They lost.

In the face of increasing discontent among the islanders, the Government decided that non-payment of the Skye toll would be a criminal offence ­ in contrast to all other bridges, where refusal to pay is a civil matter. To date more than 1,200 individuals have been charged with non-payment of the tolls, 496 people have been prosecuted and the judicial system is still reeling under the pressure of cases and appeals.

As the sixth anniversary of the tolls nears, the islanders are still angry that the bridge that was built to help the prosperity of their community is proving a costly experiment.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster into financing of the bridge concluded that "a question mark must remain over the extent of value for money obtained by the taxpayer and the toll payer from this project".

Although the report claimed the impact on tourism had been positive, with a 26 per cent rise in visitors, anti-toll campaigners said the figures were misleading as they could not measure the number of people turned away by the charges.

Farquhar Graham, the proprietor of the Crofter's Kitchen café that lies next to the Skye end of the bridge, doesn't need a report to know the bridge has been a mixed blessing. "Yes, we have increased communications and better access, but at a cost," he said.

"This island depends largely on tourists and many are turned away by the extortionate price of the tolls. A lot of people who used to come and stay on Skye don't any more because if they want to go on trips to parts of the mainland it costs too much. By the time they pay for a bed and breakfast on the island and then the bridge charges they are better off getting a hotel room on the mainland.

"Tourism generally has become harder over the years, with less people able to spend as freely because of the strong pound. We've found that the number of our foreign customers is down by about 30 per cent compared to a few years ago. With all our other problems we need the high bridge tolls like a hole in the head."

Andy Anderson, a Scat campaigner, said: "The cost to the government of subsidising the toll is now higher than it would be if they paid off the loan and abolished the toll completely."

The group claims that the annual government subsidy to the Skye Bridge company will amount to £1.8m this year, and could be as much as £2.5m if, as expected, the European Union rules that the toll should be subject to VAT.

It says that by 2011 the Government will have paid £35m in subsidy ­ more than enough to buy out the contract and abolish the toll to save taxpayers money. Mr Anderson said: "We have written to Sarah Boyack [the Scottish Transport Minister] asking her to examine our figures again and we're backing calls by the Association of Scottish Community Councils for a full inquiry into the Skye Bridge project so that lessons can be learnt from it ahead of any other PFI projects in Scotland."

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