PFIs and Grassroots Sport

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Where would we be without public buildings, their importance is immeasurable. Yet how some come to exist in Scotland is a contentious subject. The use of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), also known as PFIs or NPDs, have always been controversial to say the least, time and time again they have proven themselves to be astronomically expensive, often incapable of producing safe and functional infrastructures and currently they’re in the process of near enough bankrupting some local authorities. If you’re familiar with their work most likely you’ve heard of both the new Edinburgh children’s hospital and the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow, both built to shoddy and often baffling standards. Or perhaps you’ve heard of a wall falling in a Edinburgh school. Although it was found not to be directly linked to the PPP funding scheme it isn’t hard to see that it is most definitely an influence. England may have stopped the use of PPP schemes, however that doesn’t mean that they still don’t suffer the negative effects of it. For example a secondary school that was shut in Liverpool having only been open for just over a decade still costs the local authority £4 million a year in order to pay back the costs of its build.

Look it isn’t as if PPPs (formally known as a PFI in Scotland) were the mastermind plan from the Scottish government or that they really wanted it in the first place, as it was thrusted on them by Blair’s Labour. Yet that hasn’t stopped Scotland from setting up one of the most comprehensive Public Private Partnerships infrastructures in Europe. The unfortunate thing is that England have the freedom to get rid of PFIs due to their ability to borrow at optimal terms, thus making it easier for them to finance big-ticket items such as new hospitals, bridges or roads. Scotland does not enjoy the same privileges, so instead of getting rid of them the Scottish Government re-packaged and re-named this finance model into something called Non-Profit Distributing (NPD). The concept very similar as it is still considered a Public Private Partnership. However, this doesn’t mean that Scotland has no option but to use them, absolutely not.

There is another area in which NPDs are causing issues and that’s sporting. Scotland is a proud nation when it comes to sport and I believe it to be something of our national identity, but that will only ever be the case if we are able to protect Scottish grassroots sport. With the threat that NPDs place on this we should all be a little worried. Of course when talking about grassroots sport we all know that within our community our local schools play a big part in accommodating sports, therefore the issues expands to more than just sports facilities themselves.

These PPPs are never built on a foundation of community or national interests, and as such are never run that way either. They are complex contracts and financial agreements that can only be understood and operated by a pack of lawyers, and that’s quite often how they fall into being run solely as a financial product.

From the very beginning the process of PPPs showed little regard for people’s access to sporting facilities. Although Blair vowed to stop the Tory trend of selling the UK’s playing fields, quite the opposite happened, if anything its believed that the numbers increased. With 100s being sold off in their first 15 months in Government, unfortunately over the years this process hasn’t stopped regardless of who’s in Government. This has in many cases been down to PFIs or NPDs. During the negotiation to sign these multi- building contracts quite often we’ve seen the sale of playing fields and older building go in order to fund this, valuable land both monetary and of community value.

However, the effects of PPPs on the selling of playing fields is two-fold. What we’ve seen in recent years, and no more pressing than in current times is the squeeze on local authorities and their schools etc. Budgets aren’t going as far as they used to and it never will if local authorities have to factor in the high re-payments of their NPD schools. As reported this week Scotland’s councils are facing a £700 million funding gap and they are already having to look at ways to bridge the gap, Falkirk council is looking to get rid of Polmonthill ski centre, Stenhousemuir gym and Bo’ness recreation centre. Although Falkirk council has stated they don’t plan to sell them (as of now) but will instead transfer their care to a local organisation. However at the end of the day that isn’t guaranteed, and those organisations may end up charging increased prices for individuals to use the facilities or for councils to rent them. What is clear is the funding gap is further exasperated by the fact some councils are sometimes paying millions each year just to pay off their NPD debt, and quite often some of the first assets to go are sporting and recreational to fund this.

So what happens when the sports facility you are trying to use has been built via a PPP method, be that a school or building dedicated to sports? Well as stated previously some have become solely money-making vessels, so we now have a situation where schools have to actually rent their own grounds and halls off of the financial institution that owns them. This isn’t new unfortunately and for over a decade schools and local sports organisation who also rely on local authority buildings have complained that the charges for these NPD buildings are extortionate. This set-up has allowed for financial organisations to make sport for children unaffordable, especially if the organisation is voluntary, or runs in away that doesn’t focus on profits. Additionally, the ways in which organisations have to book their time in sports facilities are complicated and idiotic. This process will remain if we continue to put financial organisations in charge of community sport.

As we’re already seeing, the lifespan of a building constructed via a NPD in Scotland seems to be less than those built without a NPD model involved. If you’re spending tens of millions of pounds on a building you’re sure as hell wanting it to last more than ten years. Yet sometimes that’s all they last before the cracks start showing, sometimes quite literally. In Edinburgh which has one of the biggest multi-school NPD deals in Scotland it was found that the construction group responsible for these schools had been cutting corners, creating unsafe spaces and on-top of that they were able to “self-certify” the buildings instead of having an independent buildings inspector come on-site. Many of these schools had to be temporary closed to make way for repairs, along with it many after school clubs and sporting organisations having to be closed. One of the biggest draw backs of NPDs is the lack of accountability attached to them.

Overall the Scottish Government failed to find out how much these financial organisations would make from their NPD agreements, they failed to see who would really benefit and it most definitely isn’t you and me (unless you own one of these construction companies or financial organisations). There are so many aspects of life that are negatively effected by PPPs from health, education, civil engineering and sport, there is no way we can allow this situation to carry on, so please SIGN THIS PETITION to abolish the use of Public Private Partnerships in Scotland.

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