Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lewisham and PFI: Better than privatisation for whom? Part 3 of 3
As this mini-series wraps up, it is worth reflecting on the efficiency of PFI projects because Lewisham, like much of the rest of the country, has quite a few of these public service programmes of its own. Unfortunately, although it will take some 30 years to thoroughly analyse them, a number of schemes have already shown to be wanting.

George Monbiot has spent many years investigating PFI in the health sector – an area where Lewisham Hospital has an interest, as its new clinical wing will open soon. Four years ago he wrote about Cumberland Infirmary, which was Britain’s first PFI-funded hospital. Despite being declared “a doss house” by doctors who looked at the construction plans in 1997, the Government pressed ahead. Within weeks of opening in June 2000, pipes were splitting, flooding the place with water and sewage. There were problems with the ceilings and windows. And not enough beds – 75 fewer than the facilities it replaced. The chief executive of North Cumbria Health Authority didn’t think they were related to PFI – just teething problems. This year, Liam Halligan reported on Channel 4 how it cost one PFI hospital £333 to change a light switch! There is no incentive to create a quality service or cut costs as PFI contractors are not subject to competition, and commercial confidentiality built into PFI contracts make it hard to expose flawed conditions that work against both the taxpayer and user of the service, even after the fact.

It seems to me that a major rethink on how we provide services to the public is in order. There is no such thing as a free lunch but look at the figures again: Taxpayers face paying out £150billion over the next thirty years for over £49billion of PFI projects to date. And at his last budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced ANOTHER £26billion worth of PFI projects. Is it worth it? Is this the best Britain can do with precious resources? Better than privatisation? Certainly for a number of businesses with PFI contracts, and traders in the £4billion per year PFI share market. And better for today’s politicians, claiming prudence by keeping this horrendous cost of public service expansion off the normal accounting books (only for future generations to face). But there must be a reckoning…

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