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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Fury over bridge tolls blunder
Erskine Bridge
Tolls have been suspended on the Erskine Bridge
An error by the Scottish Executive which led to road bridge tolls being collected illegally for two months has been branded as "a stunning act of incompetence" by opposition politicians.

Toll charges on the Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde have been suspended after the executive discovered a failure to extend legislation, which allows officials to collect money for the crossing.

Scottish Transport Minister Sarah Boyack has ordered an inquiry into the "deeply unfortunate" mistake

But West Dunbartonshire Council called for the toll to be scrapped permanently to aid development in the area.

The legal power to levy the tolls on the bridge - which connects Renfrewshire to West Dunbartonshire, west of Glasgow - were not renewed on 2 July meaning that more than 800,000 has been collected from drivers without authority.

Sarah Boyack
Sarah Boyack: "Deeply unfortunate"
The executive will now have to use the Scottish Parliament's fast-track procedures to initiate legislation to allow the tolls - 60p for cars - to be reinstated.

The new law will be backdated until July but until it comes into force no charges can be levied on the bridge, which opened in 1971.

The original order to collect tolls was granted for 20 years, but it was later decided to give ministers powers to continue tolling for periods of five years at a time.

Although Ms Boyack gave permission for an extension to the toll levy, "an administrative error" meant the necessary order was not laid before the Scottish Parliament.

Ms Boyack said: "This error is deeply unfortunate. It should not have happened."

Suspended immediately

"The legislation we propose will rectify the position from 2 July. In the meantime I have ordered tolls to be suspended immediately."

The minister said that she had asked the head of the transport department to investigate the circumstances surrounding the mistake and make recommendations how best to avoid the situation occurring again.

An executive spokesman added that it was "very rare" for administrative oversights of this nature to occur but the toll suspension was likely to continue for "a matter of weeks".

The toll suspension has been seized upon by the SNP who branded the oversight as "a stunning act of incompetence".

Andrew Wilson, SNP transport spokesman
Andrew Wilson: "A total mess"
The party's transport spokesman, Andrew Wilson, said: "If the government cannot even run Scotland's bridges - which is a matter of simple administration - how can they be trusted to run the rest of Scotland properly?

"The question also arises that if the government have been charging motorists illegally would motorists be able to claim compensation."

Mr Wilson said the situation was "a total mess" and accused Ms Boyack off "taking her eye off the ball".

Almost 8 million vehicles a year cross the Erskine Bridge and it takes about 5m in tolls annually.

Neil Grieg of the AA said he found the incident "totally amazing".

Standard practice

He said: "We were actually aware that there was a renewal of the tolls coming up. In fact, West Dunbartonshire Council were using it as an opportunity to co-ordinate a major campaign to get the tolls taken off.

"So if external organisations were aware this was happening then surely the executive themselves must have been aware. This should just be standard practice."

Mr Grieg calculated that more than 800,000 had been taken from motorists illegally during the two months since the licence expired.

He said: "I would have thought that rather than fast-tracking legislation through the Scottish Parliament a better gesture would have been to give drivers two months free from tolls."

Danny McCafferty from West Dunbartonshire Council said the blunder could be a "golden opportunity" to abolish toll charges.

He said: "West Dunbartonshire has a very ambitious riverside plan to bring 6,000 jobs over the next 10 years to our side of the river, and the scrapping of the toll charges would aid that development."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Transport Minister Sarah Boyack
"We put in place systems that will prevent this kind of thing happening again."
Neil Grieg of the AA
"I find it totally amazing."
Forbes McFall reports
"The bridge has carried a toll charge since it was opened 30 years ago."
See also:

12 Sep 00 | Scotland
Ruling forces Skye toll increase
26 Jun 00 | Scotland
Skye tolls 'illegal'
30 Nov 99 | Scotland
VAT threat to bridge tolls
07 Sep 99 | Scotland
Drivers 'face more toll costs'
04 Nov 99 | Scotland
Roads plans prompt mixed reactions
04 Nov 99 | Scotland
Green light for roads projects
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