What does this mean?
It means that, for this particular deal, the Trust was able to borrow sufficient funds (in this case from the Local Authority). It means that the cost to the Trust in re-procuring the services to run the hospital for the remaining years of the PFI, together with paying off the private sector for their contractual loss of profit, was £67m less than the cost of continuing to pay the PFI unitary charge.
To put all this in context, according to HM Treasury, the capital cost of the hospital was originally £54.1m.
The Trust Chief Executive called the hospital a “fantastic facility” that could never have been built without PFI. Nevertheless, the PFI was not seen as offering value for money in the current climate. Northumbria NHS Trust are to be congratulated for assessing their options and to have negotiated their way into a significant saving. It has taken them two years to do so.
Is this a model that other NHS Trusts and Local Authorities can follow? Unfortunately not all PFI contracts allow for voluntary termination. In addition, the compensation provisions vary, making termination more or less attractive.
And, crucially, not all PFI contracts are a bad deal for the public sector.
It is true that many PFI contracts have proved expensive, particularly the earlier deals. However, over time, the Treasury refined the standard form of PFI contracts. Mistakes were rectified, the imbalance between amount paid and the risks transferred was addressed.
The later PFI deals were a vast improvement on the earlier incarnations. If we look at later deals, in particular those done in Scotland, PFI was cut down to design, build and maintain. The provision of soft services (cleaning, equipment, catering, portering etc.) was generally outside the PFI. In our desire to rectify the wrongs of early deals we should not be blind to the fact that later deals provided a competitive procurement avenue. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What should a Trust (or Local Authority) do?
An Authority should be aware of the the difference between the costs of the PFI to the contract term, and the costs of running the facility under self-procurement. An Authority should also assess whether the contract can be terminated, and the amount of compensation payable. If the procurement saving is greater than the compensation payable, then the Authority should seriously consider its options.
Importantly, however, PFI contracts contain variation provisions. This means that the Authority has rights to change the contract. In many cases, significant savings can be made in this way. In assessing value for money, therefore, Authorities need to conduct a full review of their PFI contracts.
PFI contracts are complex and, to date, much of the experience and expertise has sat on the other side of the table. It’s different now. We would urge Authorities to seek expert advice and develop a plan for their PFIs. If value is already being achieved, that’s great. If not, then there is work to be done.