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.”
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.