With more than 700 privately financed deals signed, the U.K. is abandoning its private finance initiative (PFI) system, aiming to rebalance risk transfer with project developers. The government now plans to use different mechanisms to attract an estimated $380 billion of private investment into its long-term infrastructure pipeline.
“The days of the public sector being a pushover must end,” said the U.K. chief finance minister Phillip Hammond, vowing to honor existing deals. As long as risks are fairly shared, “I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer,” he added.
PFI involves private sector companies financing, designing, building and maintaining public assets, such as schools and hospitals. In exchange they receive annual “unitary” payments to cover their total capital and operating costs from the procuring authorities, normally spread over 30 years.
The system fell into disrepute for various reasons, including perceived excessive private sector profits. To overcome such objections, the government revised the system, launching PF2 six years ago.
But the whole system was further discredited by the collapse of the contractor Carillion PLC. early this year, stranding several privately financed projects, including major hospitals in Liverpool and Birmingham.
PF2 “has delivered very little since it was introduced, so its demise will make little difference,” says Richard Abadie, PricewaterhouseCooper’s head of capital projects and infrastructure. “More important is how government will accelerate infrastructure investment…I expect private finance will need to be used to build future infrastructure projects”.
Finance ministry officials say the government will adopt alternative tools to draw private financing. They include the U.K. Guarantee Scheme, which can provide project lenders and bondholder with unconditional underpinning.
Launched in 2012, the scheme makes $51 billion worth of guarantees available. Guarantees can be long lasting, up to 29 years in the case of the Mersey Gateway bridge, near Liverpool.
PFI took off in the 1990s and peaked a decade ago, when around 65 deals together valued at $11 billion were signed. The pace tapered off after that and dropped to a trickle following the 2012 introduction of PF2, being used only six times since.
By far the biggest users of PFI have been the health service authorities, accounting for over 20% of the $76 billion total PFI/PF2 capital investment As projects came on stream, payments to the private companies rose steadily from 1997, reaching more than $12.75 billion this year.
With numerous public bodies still owing PFI companies around $255 billion, these payments will continue, tapering to zero around mid-century.