Bridge toll protesters were right, says their prosecutor

Bridge toll protesters were right, says their prosecutor
The Herald Scotland, by David Ross

IT was a protest that led to more than 100 people being convicted of refusing to pay to use the Skye Bridge, and lasted nearly 10 years until the controversial tolls were themselves abolished.
Now a new film to be screened on BBC Alba on New Year’s Day will reveal that the protesters actually had sympathisers among members of the forces of law and order who had to clamp down on those refusing to pay.

The film, An Drochaid/The Bridge Rising, reveals that one of the police officers sent to make arrests would rather have been one of the rebels, and the procurator-fiscal at a Highland court felt the tolls were an abuse of Government.

The film tells the story of those involved in the Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (Skat) campaign. It began at midnight on the day the Skye Bridge opened in October 1995, when the first tolls were charged and refused.

Some 130 people were convicted for refusing to pay, and several hundred others were charged but let off. Many continued the fight until December 2004 when the fees were scrapped by the then Scottish Executive.

It bought out the contract from Skye Bridge Ltd (SBL), the consortium headed by Bank of America, for £27 million.

Several of the leading campaigners saw the inside of a cell as the cases reached the High Court and the Court of Session. Most of those convicted have yet to pay their fines.

The tolls arose from one of the first instances in Scotland of a public finance initiative (PFI), introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. It left islanders paying the highest bridge tolls in Europe.

Some protesters travelled specifically to not pay the bridge tolls, including the current Scottish transport minister, Keith Brown. The former general secretary of the STUC, the late Bill Speirs, also joined Skat demonstrations against the tolls, which were imposed by Miller Civil Engineering.

Film-makers from the Glasgow-based Media Co-op spoke to leading figures on both sides of the dispute for the film, including politicians, civil servants, engineers and financiers behind the development, as well as those who opposed it and played a vital role in the removal of the tolls, such as local LibDem MSP John Farquhar Munro. His own wife Celia frequently refused to pay the tolls while driving his car.

The dispute meant a huge workload for David Hingston, procurator-fiscal at Dingwall Sheriff Court.

He became something of a hate figure, but in the film he reveals his true thoughts. "The whole of the Skye Bridge protest was stressful on quite a number of people. I was one of them," he said. "PFI in my personal opinion is a fraud on the public. It is an abuse of Government. This vast extra workload [prosecuting Skat] impinged significantly on me, and my own health, and probably contributed to my ultimate nervous breakdown."

But he is clear: "It has to be said that the Skye Bridge protest succeeded. I have no doubt whatsoever that had they not made a protest, we would still be paying to cross that bridge at whatever inflated rate Miller was demanding from the public."

Meanwhile, former police sergeant Dennis Hindman, who was based on Skye during the protest and was repeatedly called to the bridge, reveals: "If I hadn’t been a police officer, I would probably have been a member of Skat and would probably have been down there protesting."

The film also finds the man who had arguably the biggest role in organising the finance and building of the bridge: John Carson, who was regional then managing director of Miller Civil Engineering. But an internal disagreement meant he left the company and was not even invited to the opening ceremony. He walks across the bridge for the first time in the film.

The Bank of America was invited to participate, but is understood to have declined at the last minute.