26 August 2010

Rock 'n' toll

The Mayor of La Linea, Alejandro Sanchez, announced a few months ago that he intended to charge visitors leaving the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar with a "congestion charge" toll of five euros (Gibraltar residents and the 7,000 Spanish citizens who work on the Rock would be exempt).   Sanchez, whose right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party) have a majority on the council, says that the town reaps no financial benefit from the millions of visitors who stream across the border each year to shop for tax-free goods, fill up on cheap petrol, or admire the apes and the splendid views.

La Linea, which means "The Line", straddles the section of Spanish coast to which the Rock is joined by a thin strip of land.  Looking at the number of vehicles which queue for an hour or more, engines running and pumping fumes and greenhouse gases into the Mediterranean air, you can almost sympathise.  But Sanchez is no Ken Livingstone and it is not concern for the environment that has prompted the proposal.   La Linea, with 10,000 unemployed out of 64,000 inhabitants, is close to bankruptcy.  Its Council workers haven't been paid since June, leading to strikes, demonstrations and a bonfire of tyres on the main road.  He needs the cash.

Opposition to the proposal is pretty well unanimous.  Not just from the thousands of British expats from the Costas who depend on Morrisons supermarket for decent teabags and proper sausages, but from the many Gibraltarians whose income depends on tourism, the trades unions, the Junta de Andalucia, and the national government itself.  A day of protest is being organised for 23 September with a march intended to bring border traffic to a standstill.

Meanwhile the construction work for directing traffic leaving Gibraltar to turn right, towards the proposed toll booths, has been stopped by the Spanish highways department on the grounds that it is illegal; the kerb on La Linea's municipal road cannot be extended into a "national" road.  Without this, drivers could just turn in the opposite direction and avoid the toll.  But Sanchez is defiant and determined to get his way even if he has to challenge the Madrid government in court.

There is no doubt that improved traffic flow is much needed, and that La Linea needs to sort out its financial problems and municipal mismanagement.  In an ideal world, Britain and Spain would stop squabbling over sovereignty of El Peñon (as Spaniards refer to the Rock), border controls would be removed, La Linea would build a huge and profitable Park & Ride with space on the buses for shopping trolleys, petrol would cost the same on both sides, Morrisons would open a branch in La Linea, and we'd all live happily ever after.  (Except the thousands of people who make their living from smuggling tax-free fags and booze, of course ...)


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