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PFI – are we really powerless in the face of this scandal?

It is time the Scottish public sector considered a much more robust and comprehensive challenge to the PFI landscape, putting real effort into finding legal ways to rip up unjustified contracts. Claiming we can’t do anything about it is not a good enough response.

In fact, there is so little that needs to be written about PFI any more. In 2000 I started editing the Scottish Left Review. We dedicated our second issue to the topic of PFI. In it a number of writers looked at the policy when it was in its comparative infancy. Looking back now, it is hard to find any part of the predictions contained in the analysis which didn’t turn out to be accurate.

But it was ignored. Instead New Labour and the Tories were falling over each other to promote PFI as a New Dawn for the public sector. If you look back at the ‘mainstream political understanding’ of PFI it hasn’t so much evolved as kept changing its coat. As each new issue came along (the debt refinancing scandal, the litany of bad construction projects, the increasing awareness that perfectly good buildings were being sacrificed because the value of the land was where the profit for the companies came from and so on) all that happened was excuses kept changing. So ‘well, the early negotiations were not as good as they might be, its a learning process’ and then ‘we’ve closed a scandalous loophole, but only partly’ and then ‘the latest round of PFIs are different – they are much better designed’. But always – always – ‘this is our only option – be grateful for your new school’.

Except my personal experience doesn’t match this. After a car accident I was a regular returned to my local hospital for a number of years and I got to know some of the staff over a period when they moved from the old, run-down hospital to the new-shiny one. “Delighted?” I asked. “Hell no” was the universal answer – the old hospital might have been long in the tooth but staff could get parked, they could make it to the staffroom and back during a coffee break, they had flexibility in how they allocated space, the cleaning and catering was under their control and was good quality. My local school, now PFIed? I’m on the board of our local youth group and the school pays us money because the PFI firm wouldn’t allow for any social space for sixth year pupils who have gaps in the timetable, so we act as a cut-price surrogate common room. And the school can’t even hold meetings in the evening because they have to pay the PFI company for the pleasure. I used to work with a university which was PFIed. It now has the worst debt-to-revenue ration in the UK. And every member of staff I’ve met complains about the climate control – too hot, too cold.

Good examples of PFI actually working? I’m sure there are some. But as a regular user of the health service (I have a two year old daughter), the education service and lots of local authority services, I haven’t come across many. OK, we didn’t have a local library and now we do – and it’s pretty good. But the fact it’s in a PFI school doesn’t mean ‘PFI is responsible’. I know it would have been delivered at less cost if any other form of financing had been used.

But things have changed. Even Tories know PFI has been something of a disaster.  But only for us. It has been a free gift to the big construction sector (but not so much to indigenous business – as our procurement report makes clear, PFI is designed to make it impossible for small businesses to compete) and even more to the ‘service companies’ which have used PFI as a battering ram to break down the public sector and make itself rich. The finance terms are unacceptable, the service quality is unacceptable, the length of the contract is unacceptable, the loss of control of public service is unacceptable.

No-one now believes in PFI, though some will still support it. So the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary decision to say enough is enough is a wonderful thing. This has been a corrupt system which was forced on us by an ideological elite who spent 20 years undermining the public sector for the sole reason of making the business elite enormously rich. PFI wasn’t about building school, it was about building a US-style commercial free-for-all in which the public realm was designed as a sort of fish-in-a-barrel set-up for making the rich richer.

What now? Well, my simple contribution. Can’t we encourage the Scottish Government to set up a team of the brightest and more active legal minds in Scotland to rip through the PFI landscape and work out how to take our property back? The problem with PFI was largely that it was intentionally badly negotiated – the private side did all the negotiating, the public side did all the capitulating. There is a case to say that this was a dereliction of public duty and that these contracts might in some cases be considered illegitimate on the basis of negligent practice. I simply don’t believe that a serious attempt to forcibly renegotiate contracts (or take them away altogether) would cost more than it saved.

PFI is a national scandal and that it took the nation so long to realise it is very much part of that scandal. But do we really need to act like there is nothing we can do?

Robin McAlpine