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Skyeway Robbery

article - SchNEWS,  11 June 2004

"After nearly a decade of struggle against both British and Scottish Governments we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we also know of course that there are strong, if somewhat shy, forces strenuously opposed to conceding to our demand that the toll be removed. We need once again to see the united voice of the community demanding the removal of the toll, while celebrating the success of the campaign so far." - Andy Anderson, Skye & Kyle Against Tolls.

Nearly nine years after its introduction, the controversial toll on the Skye Bridge in Scotland could be abolished by the end of the year. The Bridge, which has faced a barrage of direct action, was the forerunner of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), built and run by a private company, in this case the Bank of America who could then charge motorists what they liked. This new method of financing was described by journalist George Monbiot as "the laboratory for a novel and controversial experiment" which has since spread like a corporate cancer across the country.

Initially hated for its effect on wildlife (it destroyed the second largest Otter colony in Europe), intrusion on the beautiful skyline and ending the island's romantic isolation, the bridge has the highest toll per mile of road anywhere on earth. Since the ferries were closed on government orders, Islanders have no alternative but to dish out 5.70 each way for a one-mile crossing. A campaign of direct action and legal challenges has been waged by the people ever since (see SchNEWS 45).

Of course when faced with any civil disobedience, governments do what they do best, make new laws to criminalise the protests. Before the bridge was built the Tory Government passed legislation which made it an offence to refuse to pay the full toll demanded. However, despite hundreds of arrests the legislation proved useless and is no longer being used. Now the cops arrest toll protestors for traffic offences like obstruction. Despite the announcement Robbie the Pict, a veteran anti-toll campaigner, said he'd "...believe it when I see it. Just simply removing the tolls is like getting the mugger to stop hitting you. Should we be grateful? The whole thing should never have happened and has not been legal from day one."

no pfi-ling matter

The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was a Tory idea, which, in opposition, Neo Labour strongly opposed. But as soon as the party came to power, surprise sur-bloody-prise it fully embraced it and declared that PFI would become the means by which most of our new public infrastructure would be built. Everything from schools to hospitals to roads are now put under the PFI hammer.

Like some dodgy hire-purchase agreement, PFI allows the government to avoid paying up front for the cost of big building projects. Instead, private companies get to build and run the 'assets' and the taxpayer then has to buy back these services, usually over a 20-30 year period. But this isn't like buying a mortgage, more like paying by credit card.

So we get companies like Jarvis (who are so crap they have had to change their name to Engenda) running schools (see SchNEWS 425), while corporations like Tarmac, Siemens and Rentokil get the hospitals (SchNEWS 404) But as George Monbiot points out "Far from introducing market disciplines, it has become an official license to fleece the taxpayer. Far from reducing the public sector borrowing requirement, PFI is, as the Accounting Standards Board has noted, simply an 'an off-balance sheet fiddle'".

Just take a look at the new Edinburgh Infirmary, which would have cost the government £180 million to build, but thanks to the PFI will cost the taxpayer £30 million a year for the next 30 years - that's £900 million to some lucky corporation - a cost that is already crippling the Lothian health authority. Or what about the plan to build three new hospitals on a single site in the Paddington basin where the rocketing costs - up from the original £380 milllion to nearly £900 million - means that they may never be built. Still, despite planning permission not even been granted yet, over £5.6 million has so far been spent on consultants fees alone!

In fact there is only one means of meeting the outrageous costs of PFI, and that is by cutting public services. A study by a consultancy company which works for the Department of Health shows that for every £200 million spent on PFI hospitals the result will be a loss of a thousand doctors and nurses. The first PFI hospitals also contain some 28 per cent fewer beds than the hospitals they replaced while many are heavily in debt and closing wards and cutting back services.

Not only that but some NHS Trusts are being fined by the private companies - for treating too many patients! The new Worcestershire Royal Hospital opened in March 2002 and is already £15 million in debt. Despite this it has been charged £200,000 this year under a penalty clause with the private consortium Catalyst, that said bed occupancy would not rise about 90%. At the University College London Hospitals, they are fined when more than a set number of meals are eaten or bedsheets used! Meanwhile one of the first PFI hospitals, the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, has in its contract a clause that if the buildings workload increases (y'know caring for too many sick people) extra cash must go to the consortium. This is a bit rich coming from the people whose new building included collapsing ceilings, a sewage system which could not cope with the number of users; offices so small clerical and laundry staff couldn't work in them, spaces between beds so narrow new trolleys had to be ordered, and a glass roof that on sunny days meant the temperature inside the hospital hit 33C. So far 40 cleaners have lost their jobs thanks to 're-structuring' and there has already been a shortage of beds. All this for a £67 million hospital that will eventually cost the taxpayer a staggering £500 million.

In fact while Neo Labour tells us if you've got nothing to hide, we've got nothing to fear when they bang on about ID cards, it seems they don't seem to want to be under the same sort of surveillance spotlight when it comes to PFI. Almost every leaked document suggests that it is a gigantic fraud upon the taxpayer and that if everyone knew what was really going it would be ditched. But with the Skye Bridge toll victory on the horizon George Monbiot told SchNEWS "This is great news for two reasons: first it shows that persistent protest can eventually win against impossible odds. Secondly it suggests that the Private Finance Initiative - the biggest financial fraud ever foisted on the British people - is beginning to fall apart."

- SchNEWS  (11th June 2004)

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revised 18 November 2005