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PIE IN THE SKYE...; Tories slammed for ripping off taxpayers in multi-million pound island bridge scandal.

It's Scotland's bridge of sighs... a concrete memorial to a government's financial folly.

It was supposed to bring an economic miracle to Skye, boosting tourism and cutting the cost of living.

But the pie-in-the- Skye bridge over the beautiful stretch of water that separates the mainland from the island has served only to infuriate tens of thousands.

The highest tolls in Britain have sparked angry protests, marches and parades in an island previously famous for its tranquility, majesty and sense of timelessness.

Some local people have refused to pay the tolls and ended up in court and even jail.

And now the bridge project has been damned in a scathing Parliamentary report which lashes the last Tory Government for cack-handed incompetence.

Taxpayers and toll- payers, says the report, are NOT getting value for money.

And last night, the man who has inherited this bridge of sorrows - Scots Secretary of State Donald Dewar - was facing demands to fire senior civil servants over the financial fiasco surrounding the ill-fated project.

The calls came following a damning report by the powerful all-party Commons public accounts committee.

In a blistering attack on the financing of the bridge, the committee alleges, in diplomatic language of course, that taxpayers - and the people of Skye - have been conned.

It says there were "serious omissions" in the way the Scottish Office handled the bridge from the outset.

IT was the brainchild of the Tory Government, with former Scots Secretary Ian Lang giving it the go-ahead.

Lang's successor, Michael Forsyth, also gave it his blessing.

It was to be a tribute to the so-called Tory economic miracle - the first major private finance initiative in Scotland.

But it has turned into a legacy of waste and incompetence.

The pounds 30 million bridge was bankrolled by the Bank of America and built by a consortium headed by Miller Construction.

But the developers were also given pounds 12 million of public money for their trouble and a further pounds 3 million to supervise the contract.

In return, the backers were to recoup their outlay through tolls which - up to pounds 5.20 each way in summer - were the most expensive in Britain when the bridge opened in 1995. And Tory ministers turned it into a virtual no-lose situation for the money men.

They decreed the ferry which made the crossing from Kyleakin to Kyle of Lochalsh for generations was to be closed to protect the consortium's interests.

But the people of Skye, normally slow to anger, have been in revolt since the bridge was built.

With the alternative of the ferry taken away, they had no option but to pay the Skye-high tolls.

And Tory ministers such as Lord James Douglas - Hamilton labelled them "lunatics and Luddites".

But now the Commons report published today says the protesters have been right all along.

The report savages the Scottish Office for:

NOT protecting the interests of tollpayers or taxpayers.

CREATING a monopoly crossing.

NOT giving enough consideration to alternatives such as ferries.

The report says "there is no guarantee that the bridge will ever be free", and reveals investors in the project are enjoying a whopping return of 18.4 per cent a year.

The cost to the public, says the report, is too high because there was no hard bargaining by the Scottish Office.

Committee chairman and former Tory minister David Davis said yesterday: "There was no proper comparison with alternative options - a serious omission in the Scottish Office evaluation. The costs of the bridge are not reasonable."

Alasdair Maclean. spokesman for Skye and Kyle Against Tolls, blasted: "This vindicates what we have been saying from the start."

HE added: "Civil servants' heads should now roll at the Scottish Office."

SNP leader Alex Salmond described the report as "a devastating indictment", adding: "The Secretary of State must hold an immediate internal inquiry and take the required action. He must also act to protect the interests of the community of Skye since the arrangements for the bridge have been judged to be totally unsatisfactory."

Scottish Office Minister Brian Wilson, a long-time campaigner against high tolls on the bridge, called for Forsyth and Lang "to be dragged from obscurity to answer for their actions".

Local Lib-Dem MP Charles Kennedy said in a commercial operation, heads would roll for such "gross shortcomings".

The Scottish Office yesterday was promising to study the report.

Skye, meanwhile, was not celebrating, though islanders were happy to know that their stance had been justified ...

And that wherever "the lunatics and the Luddites" are, they're not in Skye.

Instead, you will find them at desks in the top civil service echelons of the Scottish Office.

Or, if they're former Tory ministers, earning big bucks in company boardrooms.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Macleod, Angus
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 21, 1998
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