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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.