It’s back with a bang and right in the middle of an election campaign. The Private Finance Initiative [PFI] funding mechanism so beloved of the Labour party back in the early 2000s has returned to haunt them.
The closure of seventeen schools in Edinburgh amid concerns for the safety of pupils caught everyone by surprise. The schools were inspected after a wall collapsed at another school back in January but nobody believed the checks were anything other than a formality and the schools were expected to reopen after the Easter break.
But that didn’t happen. Instead more faults were found and Edinburgh council, unable to guarantee the safety of pupils and staff, issued a statement late Friday announcing the indefinite closure of the schools.
The closure affects thousands of pupils and their families. The local authority is now faced with the cost of finding temporary accommodation for pupils, some of whom face critical exams in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile the Scottish Government has urged other local authorities to carry out urgent inspections of their own building stock.
The sorry state of affairs is a legacy of the controversial system known as PFI. PFI was a creation of the Conservative government in the early 1990s – but it really took off under Tony Blair’s Labour government.
Under PFI, contractors shouldered the construction costs of schools and hospitals and then rented the finished projects back to the public sector – making exorbitant profits in some cases. Gordon Brown when Chancellor embraced the idea as it enabled him to remove the costs from UK PLC books. The accountancy sleight of hand enabled Brown to acquire a reputation for being prudent.
The Labour party was in power north and south of the border when Brown was punting PFI. At Holyrood Gordon Brown’s devotion to PFI was shared by First Minister Jack [now Lord] McConnell. PFI was railroaded through civic Scotland. Brown and McConnell may have long departed elected office, but their legacy remains.
There’s been no shortage of news reports on the closure of the seventeen Edinburgh schools. It’s been headlined by newspapers, carried on radio bulletins and featured on TV news. But one thing has been missing – the Labour party. There’s been nary a mention of the party that was responsible for introducing and pushing the PFI system that funded the building of the schools.
You’ll be hard pressed to locate any newspaper article, bulletin or report that highlights Scottish Labour’s involvement in the PFI Schools scandal. And it is a scandal. This weekend we learned that pupils and staff have been at risk for years due to structural faults in the buildings.
Every day children attending primary schools walked beneath walls now known to be unstable and at risk of collapse. That nobody was injured when a brick wall at Oxgangs Primary School partially collapsed is down to sheer good fortune.
The £360m contract to build and maintain the Edinburgh schools was won by the Edinburgh Schools Partnership back in 2001. Glasgow council soon followed, awarding a £1.2bn contract to private company 3ED.
In 2002 Jack McConnell said: “Public Private Partnerships are innovative. They are delivering new hospitals, new schools and better transport links.”
However, concerns over the quality of building work were already being raised with the EIS being particularly vocal. In August 2001, EIS General secretary Ronnie Smith, said: “There have been serious concerns about the state of readiness of some of the schools and the local authority has a legal responsibility to make sure it provides a safe working environment for teachers and pupils.”
When some opposition-led local authorities voiced their own concern about the funding model being promoted by McConnell’s administration, the Labour First Minister responded by threatening to block funding for these councils. Scottish Labour was, in effect, coercing local authorities into using PFI in order to build schools.
The SNP objected. Speaking at the time, Clackmannanshire council leader Keith Brown [Now Scottish Government Transport Secretary] said:
“It is absolutely outrageous that Mr McConnell is holding back money from councils who want to run schools on a not for profit basis.
“The Private Finance Initiative means money is removed from public services and stuffed into the pockets of private financiers. It rips off the tax-payer and hands control of schools and other services to private corporations
“Every school that the Scottish Executive plans to build could be built by a not for profit trust – but crucially the money that is creamed off in excess private profit will instead by re-invested in children’s education.”
In 2004 more concerns over the quality of building work were raised by teachers. The concerns emerged after a national survey of new-build/refurbished schools was carried out by the Educational Institute of Scotland in conjunction with the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.
Concerns over the quality of construction were repeatedly raised. In 2006 the trade union Unison published a briefing paper containing examples of the criticisms leveled at PFI.
A survey by Scottish Construction News (SCN) branded the Scottish Executive’s £2.3b schools replacement programme a waste of taxpayers’ money. SCN editor Jonathan Brown said: “There is a lot of anger in the industry and a real feeling too that PPP is a rip-off with big future costs to the public purse in the pipeline.”
Glasgow architect Alan Dunlop complained that PPP schools are too often badly designed and “little more than a roof”. He said: “In 20 years’ time these buildings are likely to become as bad as the schools they replaced because the materials are not good enough and the design is poor.”
The government’s architecture watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), warned that public service delivery is suffering because the vast majority of PFI buildings have not been designed and built to a high enough standard. It also said that 9 out of 10 of the worst designed new schools in England were built using PFI.
PFI was eventually scrapped by the SNP when the party won the Holyrood election in 2007. It was replaced by a Non-Profit Distributing method which funded projects in three main sectors – Further Education, Health and Transport.
But the stench of PFI remains, not least due to the eye-watering annual payments some local authorities have been saddled with. This was highlighted in June last year when SNP MSP Jim Eadie raised the issue in the Holyrood chamber.
The news that schools built under the last Labour led administration, and which are still being paid for, have been structurally unsafe for ten years should have all but ended Kezia Dugdale’s election campaign. The Scottish Labour leader herself is on record boasting about her party’s PFI achievements whilst rubbishing the SNP’s replacement model administered by the Scottish Futures Trust.
But just as when Dugdale found herself in need of assistance when she U-turned on an unworkable tax rebate, the Scottish media has rushed to her aid again. Newspapers and broadcasters have bent over backwards to ensure Scottish Labour isn’t implicated in the school closure scandal. The words PFI and Labour have scarcely appeared in the same sentence.
The story was briefly mentioned on Radio Scotland on Saturday when it the subject of a short newspaper review. Presenter Bill Whiteford appeared to panic at the mere mention of PFI. “We have to be careful during this election campaign in terms of raising that as a political issue” said the BBC man.
Why had BBC Scotland to be careful raising a verifiable and well documented fact during an election campaign because it might become a political issue? I don’t recall the same caution when the broadcaster promoted a politically motivated smear campaign over the course of several days after the First Minister signed a memorandum with two Chinese companies.
The broadcaster has singularly failed to highlight Labour’s historic role in the PFI legacy, despite it being very highly relevant. Unlike the forensic examination of the SNP’s governance when a crack was found in the Forth Road Bridge, there’s been no similar pursuit of Scottish Labour over the PFI scandal.
Forth Road Bridge
Cast your mind back to December last year and a crack in a truss on the Forth Road Bridge made the news. The day the story broke BBC Scotland allocated it no fewer than four reporters, including political reporters. The item on that night’s Reporting Scotland lasted twelve minutes.
Over the course of the next few days the story saturated not just BBC Scotland output but all Scottish media output. Within days, smears and accusations were being levelled. Opposition politicians accused the SNP of negligence and of cutting maintenance budgets.
When engineer John Carson issued statements critical of the maintenance regime, he was rewarded with a spot on Reporting Scotland. Carson’s claims set the news agenda for days.
It resulted in accusations being leveled at Transport Minister Derek Mackay that he had misled parliament.
I’ve embedded four separate audio clips which give an idea of the tone of coverage BBC Scotland was pushing. Below you’ll hear interviews, discussions, newspaper reviews and a smear perpetrated by the Mail on Sunday.
Gary Robertson interviews Derek Mackay
Discussion on the Shereen programme
Mail on Sunday smear featuring Jackie Baillie
The PFI scandal is a far more serious situation than the Forth Road Bridge Crack. The bridge resulted in nothing more than inconvenience to the public, whereas the PFI situation put children in danger for years.
Unlike the bridge story which was built on politically motivated innuendo, there’s no dubiety over who was responsible for the PFI contracts that built the schools. This is a problem that can be placed squarely at the feet of the Labour party.
The schools were built ten years ago. Some might question whether our media should be looking back years in order to look for blame. Well once again we can look to the Forth Road Bridge story to see BBC Scotland did just that.
Below is a clip from Reporting Scotland which shows the broadcaster looking back six years in order to present ‘evidence’ it felt relevant to the story. The evidence of course supported the anti-SNP narrative that was prevalent across the whole of the media.
Of course it isn’t just BBC Scotland which has shown a reluctance to draw attention to Scottish Labour over the PFI scandal, the entire Scottish media has failed in this regard, even STV. The difference of course is that we are forced to pay BBC Scotland to present political news, and in return we are promised balanced and non-partisan coverage. The difference in coverage between the PFI story and the Forth Road Bridge closure is obvious.
The PFI schools scandal will run. It’s just too big a story to ignore. I’m confident though that Scottish Labour will be able to ride out this storm without any of its politicians, past or present, facing questions over this scandal. You won’t find Jack McConnell being grilled by Gary Robertson or confronted by Glenn Campbell.
Newspapers are already trying to turn what should be a disaster for Scottish Labour into an attack on the SNP. It’s led to some newspapers publishing laughable headlines that do little to enhance their already diminishing reputations.
The headlines were based on calls from the Scottish Conservatives for the Scottish Government to review the remit of Education Scotland to “include the condition of school buildings”. Just how education inspectors were to suddenly acquire construction skills and training wasn’t fully explained.
The story was picked up by the Scottish Daily Mail and the newspaper’s headline was rather fortuitously first to be read out that very morning on Good Morning Scotland.
Jack McConnell was happy to appear on BBC Scotland recently where he took the plaudits for introducing the smoking ban. If he can be invited on to accept credit, then surely he can be invited on to accept responsibility for the scandal of PFI.Views: 27719