By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet
When UK-based construction company Carillion PLC finally hit the buffers after months of pointless government efforts to prop up the public sector contractor, it wasn’t long before the finger of blame again pointed to Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects for the mess.
It’s a familiar argument that is promoted reflexively in a lot of the UK press because it fits their anti-corporate narrative. It follows the line that when public authorities invite private sector businesses to design, build and operate a public asset, the result will be huge profits for the contractor, its bankers and its shareholders while taxpayers bail out the projects when they fail.
In the case of Carillion, that narrative got a boost from a National Audit Office report last week that stated that there’s still insufficient evidence to show that the UK’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) program delivers value for money. It also said that the cost of PPP/PFI to taxpayers comes to £200bn, a particularly uninformative claim, considering that the equivalent public sector contracting almost always goes over budget and costs taxpayers untold billions of pounds through inefficiency, non-delivery and cost overruns, yet is rarely reported about in the press.
Boost for Nationalist Agenda
The NAO report will boost the Labour Party’s current position that all such projects should be nationalized, whatever the cost.
The only problem with the way that this has been reported is that PFI is not why Carillion collapsed.
In fact, the main reasons for Carillion’s collapse are that it failed to deliver on a wide range of contracted services, so it wasn’t being paid, even as it took on more projects and more and more debt, estimated to total £900m. The company also continued to boost dividends, despite a widening pension deficit, which now sits at £587m. Finally, Carillion incurred cost overruns and delays in the delivery of many public sector projects, of which only three were PFI.
The idea that PFI was to blame for Carillion’s collapse and that taxpayers are now on the hook for the many public sector projects is going to stick, even though it’s nearly as inaccurate as the claim that the company, its investors and its bank finance providers are profiting from the company’s demise.
The Guardian, for example, singled out three PFI investments, including two troubled hospital construction projects, for their contribution to the collapse of the company. These included the £335m rebuilding of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and the £350m Midland Metropolitan Hospital, both of which ran into expensive delays.
But the media focus on Carillion’s mishandling of three PFI contracts ignores the larger issue, which is the company’s own inability to manage risks associated with the delivery of any of its services.
There is a legitimate debate around whether PFI and its successor, PF2, deliver value for money to public sector institutions such as The National Health Service (NHS). This is because of the higher financing costs for private sector borrowing and thus the significantly higher cost to NHS trusts of having the private sector operate and maintain these assets once they are built.
Bottom Line Focus
At the end of the day, what matters most is the company’s ability to deliver. We’ve seen this before when another opportunistic PFI company, Jarvis, got in over its head and collapsed.
There have been more than 130 health-related PPP projects in the UK since the PFI scheme was established in 1992. Almost all of the large hospital projects were delivered on time and on budget using PFI during the Labour government from 2001 to 2010. This was followed by a sharp fall in waiting lists for surgery and other essential healthcare services across the country.
The issue in this instance should not be the delivery model, but rather the company that is responsible. In Carillion’s case, it is now clear that when it came to running the projects that were at the core of its business, nobody was managing the rising costs and declining receivables. This was inexcusable considering how the company boosted the dividend in each of the 16 years since it was founded.
The end result, while enriching a few investors, was a precipitous share price decline since the middle of 2017 that more than erased those gains. The company’s lenders are also reportedto have started writing down the £835m of committed bank facilities and £140m in short-term facilities, though their exposure could be much higher.
Business as Usual?
Despite all the handwringing, there is no shortage of public sector contractors who will happily take over the many public sector construction and support service contracts that Carillion’s collapse will require the government to put up for tender.
This will follow an established protocol to ensure that essential services are not interrupted. The larger, more troubled Carillion projects will take longer to renegotiate but will ultimately find replacement companies to deliver them. Work interruptions are likely to be limited, and people who have been laid off as a result of the collapse will quickly find new work, particularly given the current healthy state of the labour market. The takeaway from all of this is simply that bad businesses, whatever their line of work, go to the wall and better ones replace them.
This article has appeared in The Market Mogul. If you are interested in running this or any of my other stories, please contact the author at email@example.com.