Meet the new PFI, same as the old PFI

Minor changes abound.

Despite George Osborne claiming in 2011 that the private finance initiative (PFI), Labour's model of funding infrastructure investments with private capital, was "discredited", the Financial Times is reporting that his attempt to find a "new delivery model" to replace the scheme has resulted in a "remodelled version" with "only minor changes" which include "stripping out services such as cleaning, catering and security from the 25 to 30-year contracts in a bid to keep a tighter control on costs."

Gill Plimmer, Jim Pickard and George Parker write that (£):

In a plan still being discussed with industry, the government is also considering investing a small amount of public capital into PFI projects. Although the amounts involved would be small, this would ensure the government a seat on the board of any project, raising corporate governance standards and easing fears that the schemes are in the hands of private financiers.

The main elements of the new PFI projects look set to remain the same. The private sector will still enter into long-term deals to design and build roads, hospitals and schools, with essential maintenance such as roofing included in the contracts. They will continue to be financed by private debt and equity paid for by a revenue stream from government rather than users. Schemes will in many cases continue to be off the public sector’s balance sheet.

The real question the government still hasn't answered is why a PFI replacement remains necessary at all. The scheme was, to all intents and purposes, an effort to keep borrowing off the books of the state. Rather than borrow the initial outlay and pay interest on it, the state would "rent" what was built with someone else's capital (often, of course, paying far more in the process).

These days there is little point in borrowing off the books. This year saw the lowest cost of borrowing for three centuries, and there is no way a private company can access capital for anywhere near that cost.

The political calculus is quite different, though. PFI allows the government to spend, without saying it's switched to plan B. And to Osborne, that's priceless.

Barts Hospital, one of the beneficiaries of PFI contracts, in 1752. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.