Magazine article Public Finance

Brown Goes a Bridge Too Far

Magazine article Public Finance

Brown Goes a Bridge Too Far

Article excerpt

When the Queen opened the Forth Road Bridge on September 4,1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in Europe, and one of the great achievements of postwar civil engineering.

Unfortunately, shortly after its fortieth birthday, close examination showed that the bridge had metallurgical cancer. Corrosion had seeped into its mile-long suspension cables, rotting them from within. The bridge was cracking under the strain of carrying 24 million vehicles a year, when it was designed for half that.

So, reluctantly, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (Feta) started looking into the options, and the likelihood that a new bridge would have to be built. In an interim report, it recommended that variable tolls should be considered of up to £4 for single occupancy cars at peak periods to cut traffic flows and raise revenue.

The Scottish Executive ordered a review and consultation exercise, with a view to making a decision later this year.

Then something happened. The Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, Rachel Squire, died. This unfortunate event reguires a by-election in a constituency that just happens to border on the Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy constituency of Gordon Brown.

Now, Brown is sometimes called the Thane of Fife', so intimate is his involvement in Fife politics.

He makes it his business to know what makes Fifers tick. The prospect of paying £4 to cross the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh, where many work, has created intense anger in the historic kingdom, and made the chancellor begin to fear for Labour's prospects in the by-election set for February 9.

So on January 17 he issued a statement saying: 'I welcome the decision to abandon the toll increases.' This came as news to the Scottish Executive, which had not yet received the final report on the bridge's condition. The next day, a Scottish Executive spokesman flatly contradicted the chancellor, saying: 'Cabinet decided it was not prepared to take a decision on increasing Forth road bridge tolls in advance of, and in isolation from, decisions about the future of the bridge.'

'Who runs Scotland?' went the headlines reporting this extraordinary stand-off between the two most senior Labour politicians in Scotland. First Minister Jack McConnell made no secret of his dismay that Brown was making up transport policy on the hoof. Transport is a key responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. Anyway, what was the chancellor doing trying to fix bridge tolls? Hasn't he got bigger fish to fry?

But Brown continued to ride roughshod over the constitution. …

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