Where is the infrastructure for delivering infrastructure?

19 October 2020: How can the UK deliver on its ambitious infrastructure plans without a national infrastructure strategy, a comprehensive multi-year spending review, or an infrastructure investment bank?

It seems that everyone agrees that investing more in infrastructure is critical to the future prosperity of the UK, but how do we actually deliver those ambitions on the ground? 

After decades of underinvestment that has seen the UK fall behind many other developed, and even some developing countries, there is a great deal of consensus that a substantial amount of new investment is needed in both economic and social infrastructure right across the country. An investment-led recovery is also increasingly seen as essential to repair the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK does not score that well with only one relatively short high-speed railway, low broadband speeds across most of the country, severely congested roads, poor public transport networks outside London and the South East, a collapsing nuclear energy programme, underinvestment in hospitals, schools and care homes, and a failure to deliver enough houses. The fading glory of the on-time and on-budget delivery of the 2012 Olympics seems a long-time ago, as does the admittedly controversial PFI investment boom of the early 2000s.

A successful infrastructure programme requires many elements, starting with a clear national strategy setting out what needs to be built and how. Budget allocations for publicly funded infrastructure and a financial framework for privately funded infrastructure need to be in place well in advance. Financial institutions are required to provide finance for major infrastructure projects and to the businesses constructing them. An efficient planning system is needed that balances the economic benefits of building new assets with other interests.

Despite the enthusiasm for new investment from across the political spectrum, many of the building blocks are not yet in place. The National Infrastructure Strategy has been delayed several times and is still not published. The coronavirus pandemic has delayed the planned three-year Spending Review by yet another year, with a more limited one-year Spending Round expected this November instead. Similarly, we are still awaiting the outcome of the Infrastructure Finance Review that is expected to provide a new financial framework for private sector participation in infrastructure projects, as well as an anticipated UK successor to the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Despite this, there are some bright spots. Behind the scenes, there is a major upgrade underway of the UK’s energy transmission and distribution networks that is seeing tens of billions invested in improving the resilience and flexibility of the UK’s energy plumbing. And the UK has become a world leader in offshore wind power, with decisions taken a decade ago starting to bear fruit.

How can the UK deliver on ambitious plans to achieve carbon-neutrality while ensuring a reliable and secure energy supply, become a digital superpower and ‘level up’ deprived regions all at the same time? 

This is one of the more important debates we need to have – after all the very future of the country is at stake.

Join Katie Black, Director for Policy at the National Infrastructure Commission, Melanie Onn, Deputy Chief Executive for Renewable UK, Iain Wright, Director for Business and Industrial Strategy at ICAEW and Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, to discuss the UK’s infrastructure plans at an ICAEW webinar on Thursday 22 October at 11am.

To read ICAEW’s submission to the Infrastructure Finance Review click here.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Challenges for public bodies as PFI contracts end

8 June 2020: An NAO report has recommended that public bodies start preparations seven years before PFI contracts expire to negotiate the handover of assets and ensure service delivery is not disrupted.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued a report on the challenges public bodies are facing as private finance initiative (PFI) contracts come to an end. 

There are over 700 PFI contracts in the UK involving assets with a capital value of £57bn. Of these, 72 are due to expire over the next seven years in England, with an estimated £3.9bn of assets expected to revert to public sector ownership in that time.

The NAO is the independent audit body responsible for scrutinising public spending on behalf of Parliament. In addition to auditing the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies, the NAO examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

PFI is a contracting approach where public bodies acquire the right to use an asset embedded within a long-term service contract. PFI contracts are typically for periods of up to 25 years and were used extensively from the late 1990s until the early 2010s to build a range of assets including (but not limited to) schools, hospitals, offices, transport infrastructure and military equipment. 

Most PFI contracts expire from 2025 onwards, meaning there has so far only been a limited number of practical examples to learn from. Of those, the NAO reports that four out nine of the public bodies they surveyed were dissatisfied with the condition of PFI assets at expiry.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The public sector does not have a strategic or consistent approach to PFI contract expiry and risks failing to secure value for money in negotiations with the private sector
  • There is a risk of increased costs and service disruptions if public bodies do not prepare for contract expiry adequately in advance
  • Insufficient knowledge about asset condition risks them being returned in worse quality than expected
  • Contract expiry is resource-intensive and requires different skills, with external consultants needed in most cases
  • Many public bodies start preparing four years or more before expiry, but experience suggests that preparation time is often underestimated. Infrastructure & Projects Authority (IPA) guidance is seven years
  • There is a potential for disputes, especially as PFI providers often have a financial incentive to cut spending on asset maintenance and rectification towards the end of a contract
  • Early PFI contracts are likely to be ambiguous about roles and responsibilities at contract expiry, with poorly drafted clauses open to interpretation.

The NAO recommends that public bodies and sponsor departments start preparing for contract expiry on a timely basis, ensure the PFI contract is complete and expiry provisions are well understood, develop a contract expiry plan and escalate problems which cannot be resolved at a local level. It also recommends that adequate funding is provided to cover dispute resolution and hiring additional resources.

The NAO believes that the IPA and sponsor departments have key roles to play in supporting public bodies and departmental teams responsible for PFI contracts with resources, sector-specific expertise, specialist advice and training. They need to identify high-risk contracts, such as those sitting with public bodies that lack appropriate skills and capabilities, and potentially establish an electronic repository to enable a more consistent approach across government.

The NAO says the IPA should assess the value of money of establishing a centralised pool of internal resources, such as lawyers and surveyors, that authorities can use, provide contract expiry guidance and terms of reference for consultants, develop a consistent approach to resolving legal disputes, and develop an investor strategy to manage relationships with PFI equity investors, management service companies, and contractors.

The report’s final recommendation is to HM Treasury, saying it should provide funding to departments assisting financially constrained public bodies where it is value for money and practical to do so.

Commenting on the report Alison Ring, Director, Public Sector, at ICAEW said:

“Public bodies are very experienced in the operation of ongoing PFI contracts. But with most PFI contracts not due to finish until 2025 or later, they have much less experience of managing contract expiry.

The NAO is quite right to highlight the need to start planning well in advance and the need to invest in the very different skills and expertise required to negotiate the handover of assets to ensure service delivery is not disrupted. 

The role of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority and sponsoring departments will also be critical in supporting the 182 public bodies responsible for just one PFI contract, and in ensuring that lessons learned are shared across the public sector.

With tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds at stake if public bodies get this wrong, it is extremely important that the Government is not penny wise and pound foolish by failing to invest in the sufficiently skilled resources that will be required to get the best value for money for the taxpayer as PFI contracts come to an end.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.