The folly of PFI exposed

The cost of hospital building will put huge pressure on the NHS at the worst possible time.

The time to say "I told you so" might have arrived for Public Finance Initiative naysayers. The BBC reports today that due to some cunningly engineered PFI contracts, the health service in England will end up paying £65bn to private contractors for hospital building.

This figure is shocking, given that the actual value on completion of the 103 hospitals was just £11.3bn. This means that, in effect, private companies are charging the state a premium of more than £50bn for building and mainaining these hospitals.

Those versed in the skulduggery of PFI -- whereby a private company builds public infrastructure and then leases it back to the state -- will cast a weary eye over these figures. As George Monbiot pointed out over a year ago, the way the contracts are put together is unnecessarily complicated, and primarily aimed at keeping these liabilities off the state's balance sheet (though this no longer holds).

As Monbiot notes, the "public-sector comparator" used to assess the relative cost of public and private finance for these projects was deeply flawed. This is particularly galling, as the one of the main arguments in favour of using PFI was that it was more efficient than the public sector.

These huge NHS bills for patient care could have dire consequences for patient care. As the British Medical Association notes:

The inflexibility of PFI contracts means that it is more likely that hospitals will make cuts to services to meet their PFI repayments.

The whole sorry saga ought to make us look with trepidation on the government's cheerleading for the role of the private sector in a revamped NHS. It is yet more evidence of the reduced accountability that goes hand in hand with greater private-sector involvement -- a gap that David Cameron's "big society" is yet to address.

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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.