Why I won't take the bridge to Skye

Charles Kennedy MP attacks a 'Whitehall farce'
Click to follow
TOMORROW sees the formal opening ceremony of the Skye Bridge. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, will be on hand to hail - as he did at the Tory Party Conference - this flagship example of the private finance initiative.

But for many locally the entire matter has become more a public farce. As MP, I will be boycotting the event. So will my neighbouring colleague Calum MacDonald, Labour MP for the Western Isles, and the entire Skye and Lochalsh District Council. Mr Forsyth might care to reflect that those with local electoral mandates will be mightily thin on the ground tomorrow.

Last week, it was reported that structural cracks have already appeared in the bridge and that remedial work was underway before the project was officially completed. This is just the latest of many embarrassments that have surrounded the project.

The biggest is the toll regime itself. This will be the most expensive bridge toll levied in Europe. During the peak season of May to September, a single crossing, family car plus passenger, will cost no less than pounds 5.20. And for the all-important haulage vehicles the costs will be higher still. The sense of injustice among the communities affected is palpable. An extra flat rate Tory "toll tax" is being imposed, though locally-expressed democratic opinion is unanimously against it.

This is not to say local opinion is against the bridge. I believe the majority are in favour and, at a push, would have lived with toll levels similar to those elsewhere in Scotland - the cost of single journeys across the Forth and Erskine bridges, for example, are under pounds 1. It is the sheer scale involved for Skye that has generated such outrage.

The whole story has been a cross between Yes Minister and Whisky Galore. Such was the Scottish Office appetite for this deal that the contract was signed with builders Miller Construction before the local planning inquiry even got underway. The long-term toll package was agreed at the same stage. Based on existing ferry fare levels, it is inflation-linked and can be levied for anything up to 25 years.

More recently, the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for the policy, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, was overheard at a dinner in Stornoway talking to the chief executive of Caledonian MacBrayne Limited. Why, he asked, was the ferry company not proposing to run the existing passenger and car service in competition with the bridge? "Because, Minister, you won't let us." It seems that Lord James has not understood the logic of the policy.

Tomorrow does not mark the end of this particular story: far from it. At the end of the month the Users' Consultative Committee holds a hearing into the withdrawal of the ferry service and local fears of a transport monopoly. The committee can and will publish recommendations which may prove embarrassing to a government supposed to idolise free market competition. Then there will be the delightful irony of the European Union transport commissioner, Neil Kinnock, meeting with Calum MacDonald and myself to assess the appropriateness of this private sector monopoly.

There are even broader issues. Skye is fiercely proud and carries a deep sense of shared community values. A perceived injustice in one part of the island tends to evoke active sympathies and loyalties in the rest of the island. There are apprehensions as to how the bridge may affect this sense of mutual interdependence. I reckon that the robustness of the people will continue to shine through.

Another concern is the impact upon tourism. There are two schools of thought. One argues the bridge will bring more people across to the island. The other warns Skye will become more of a day-trip excursion, with fewer visitors staying in hotels.

Law and order is another worry. Although crime rates are low, there have been occasions when the ferrymen have spotted suspicious-looking vehicles and helped the early interception of criminals. There is also the threat of drugs: the chief constable warned only recently of the growing incidence of drugs importation to Europe via the Scottish west coast.

But for now, and specifically tomorrow, the tolls and those cracks will be to the forefront.

The Skye Bridge issue should be seen in the context of the past 16 years of Conservative government. In their 1979 manifesto, the Tories pledged to introduce the Road Equivalent Tariff for all Scottish ferry routes - under which high-cost ferry fares would have been brought down to the level of comparable road journeys. It would have been a shot in the arm for the fragile islands' economies.

Sixteen years later that pledge has not been honoured and in the intervening period well-organised campaigns have seen off two attempts to privatise the ferry links to the Western Isles. Despite this success, public subsidy has declined and additional costs are being carried by the ferry users. Earlier this year the Scottish Office scrapped the freight subsidies on the ferry links to Orkney and Shetland.

Those dependent on ferries have not been well served by this government. And, for as long as they persist, the Skye-high toll charges are not going to help.

The writer is Liberal Democrat MP for Ross Cromarty and Skye