Campbell Martin gives an update on his expose on the PPP scandal in North Ayrshire
When ‘new’ Labour swept to power in 1997, the party embraced the Tories’ Private Finance Initiative (PFI) method of funding public sector capital projects. However, having ridiculed the funding method while in opposition, ‘new’ Labour, once in government, rebranded PFI as Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and massively expanded their use. Under the Blair/Brown governments, any local authority or health board that wanted to build new schools or hospitals was told there was only one way to fund their projects. Public Private Partnerships became the ‘only game in town’.
In 2018, MacAulay Gibson Productions released the documentary ‘The Only Game in Town’, which revealed what actually happened when North Ayrshire Council embarked on a project to build and maintain four new schools, funded by a PPP. The film showed North Ayrshire Council only ever had one credible and viable bid for its £380m contract, but maintained – and still maintains – that another bid had provided genuine competition. In ‘The Only Game in Town’, viewers see that the second bid received by the council had come from a then newly-formed company with no office, no accounts, no experience in building or maintaining schools, and which had lied in its bid submission.
The company behind the second bid, Comprehensive Estate Services Limited (CES), claimed to be a subsidiary of a major Singapore-based construction firm, but this was proved to be an outright lie. CES also listed four referees, whom the company claimed would vouch for its credibility. ‘The Only Game in Town’ showed none of the referees had given permission for their names to be used.
Given these irregularities – amongst others in the North Ayrshire PPP procurement process – Strathclyde Police was asked to carry out an investigation. However, ‘The Only Game in Town’ revealed this ‘investigation’ had lasted just two weeks, before being handed to the Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service with a report stating the police could find no evidence of criminality. The case was dropped.
Now, in a follow-up film called ‘The Only Game in Town 2 – The Cover-Up’, MacAulay Gibson Productions set out the ongoing establishment cover-up around the North Ayrshire Council schools PPP scandal. The new documentary shows, I believe, the lengths to which those in positions of power in Scotland are prepared to go to prevent a thorough investigation into what happened when North Ayrshire Council decided to build four new schools, and why the establishment does not want such an investigation.
Shockingly, ‘The Only Game in Town 2 – The Cover-Up’ reveals North Ayrshire Council actually knew very little about its own multi-million-pound PPP contract. It was not the local authority that ran the project; the Council simply did as it was instructed. Councillors were told they could not see the final business case of the deal they agreed until after the contract was signed.
The new film also provides evidence of senior civil servants in the then Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive colluding to ensure North Ayrshire Council was told as little as possible about issues affecting the local authority’s PPP project.
In addition, ‘The Only Game in Town 2 – The Cover-Up’ shows Police Scotland attempting to keep secret a number of documents the force holds in relation to the extent of the Strathclyde Police ‘investigation’ into the North Ayrshire PPP procurement process. Possibly because no such ‘investigation’ ever took place.
The Private Finance Initiative, as respected investigative journalist, John Pilger, recently revealed in his film, ‘Dirty War on the NHS’, has been a major element of plans by successive Westminster governments to privatise public assets. Started under the Tory government of John Major, PFI allowed private companies to build and maintain public buildings, such as hospitals and schools, while accruing massive profits in the process.
However, it was under the ‘new’ Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that PFI, rebranded as PPP, became ‘the only game in town’. Partnerships UK was an organisation tasked with promoting PPP to public sector bodies. Initially, Partnerships UK was staffed by civil servants seconded from the Treasury, then under the stewardship of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Eventually, Partnerships UK itself became a Public Private Partnership, bringing into its staff representatives of private companies who were also involved in delivering PPP contracts across the Britain.
In Scotland, the then Scottish Executive established a body of civil servants called the Financial Partnerships Unit, the official remit of which was to ensure the public purse received value for money from Scottish PPP contracts. However, in fact, the Financial Partnerships Unit was the body that promoted PPP to local authority’s and health boards. It was also the Financial Partnerships Unit that instructed public bodies in how to run procurement processes and how to do deals.
Although ‘The Only Game in Town 2 – The Cover-Up’ focuses on the North Ayrshire Council Schools PPP Project, the film reveals that the establishment’s reluctance to investigate what happened is not actually about four schools in North Ayrshire. The North Ayrshire project is the tip of a multi-billion-pound iceberg that those in power want to keep hidden from view.
Campbell Martin is a journalist and former SNP MSP. The original Scottish Left Review article on ‘The Only Game in Town’ documentary was published in the January/February 2018 (103) issue – see http://www.scottishleftreview.scot/license-to-profit-and-plunder/ . ‘The Only Game in Town 2 – The Cover-Up’ can be viewed on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19kng8RjBXg