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Managing PFI assets and services as contracts end

Public sector bodies risk underestimating the time, resources and complexity involved in managing the end of PFI contracts. With many contracts coming to an end from 2025, there is danger that important infrastructure could return to the public sector in an unsatisfactory condition and services could be disrupted unless a more consistent and strategic approach is taken, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).  

Private finance initiative (PFI) contracts set out a long-term agreement between the private and public sector to deliver infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools. The agreements usually provide for the assets to be transferred to public sector ownership when contracts expire. There are currently over 700 PFI contracts and the bulk will start to expire from 2025. In October 2018, government announced it would no longer use PFI.1 

Today’s report draws on a survey of public authorities managing PFI contracts,2 who are largely local bodies such as NHS trusts and local authorities.3 It has found that government does not take a strategic or consistent approach to managing PFI contracts as they end. This risks a poor outcome for the taxpayer from the expiry negotiations with the private sector.  

Poor management of contract expiry can result in assets being returned to an authority in a worse condition than agreed in the contracts. This can lead to extra costs for the authority to pay for repairs and maintenance. Although it is the responsibility of special purpose vehicles (SPV) – private finance companies set up to finance, build and operate PFI assets over the contract term – to maintain the assets and report to the authority, the authority still needs to monitor assets during the contract.4 Around 55% of survey respondents recognise they need more knowledge of assets’ condition. 

The NAO has found that many PFI contracts contain contractual limitations over what information can be requested from the SPV. Around 35% of survey respondents said they had insufficient access rights to monitor the maintenance of assets, and there is evidence that PFI investors and sub-contractors are not cooperating with authorities to provide information – a fifth of authorities that asked for information said requests were ignored or denied. 

While authorities will want to ensure they receive assets in the best possible condition at contract expiry, PFI providers have an incentive to limit spending on maintenance and improvement work in the final years of contracts, as savings can be used to pay higher returns to investors. More than a third of respondents expect to have formal disputes, which can be costly for authorities. 

Many authorities start preparing for contract expiry more than four years in advance but there is a risk this is not enough time. A lack of adequate preparation risks increased costs for authorities and service disruption. Before contracts expire, authorities will have to decide whether services, such as maintenance and cleaning, will be provided in-house, by a new contractor or by the current provider. If authorities do not prepare, services can be disrupted, or they may have no choice but to extend contracts.  

Authorities also risk underestimating the resourcing and complexity involved in the expiry process. Private stakeholders can take a more coordinated approach to managing expiry as the 10 largest private investors in PFI own more than 50% of contracts. In contrast, the 10 authorities with the greatest involvement in PFI oversee just 18% of all contracts.5 About 25% of survey respondents said they lack the necessary in-house skills to manage contract expiry and 60% are planning to hire consultants. 

According to the NAO, early preparations, and a collaborative approach between public and private stakeholders, can help to ensure a successful exit from these contracts.

Government departments should encourage authorities to prepare for contract expiry as early as possible and develop a contract expiry plan that identifies all the critical tasks and obstacles that may prevent a successful exit. Departments should provide direct financial support to authorities where required, helping to fund dispute resolutions and hire additional staff. Departments and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) should also help build sector specific expertise, and a range of tools, including specialist advice and guidance documents.  

The IPA should assess the value to taxpayers of providing authorities with access to a centralised pool of internal resources, such as lawyers and surveyors, during negotiations. It should also develop a consistent approach to resolving legal disputes, and an investor strategy which manages the relationship with private sector stakeholders across all PFI contracts. 

“With the bulk of PFI contracts expiring from 2025 onwards, there is still time for government to make changes that will help public sector bodies to exit from contracts successfully.

“If government does not provide strategic support and public bodies do not prepare sufficiently, there is a significant risk that vital infrastructure such as schools and hospitals will not be returned to the public sector in the right condition and taxpayers and service users will bear the brunt of additional costs and service disruption.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Notes for Editors

  1. Government departments can be involved as the authority or as a sponsor for a local body that signed the contract. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) provides a support function to departments and authorities as the government's centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects. It reports to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury. HM Treasury is responsible for PFI policy and fiscal decisions and co-owns the PFI strategy with IPA.
  2. The NAO surveyed 107 of the 571 English PFI contracts that have or will expire over the next seven years and received 75 responses.
  3. The management of PFI contracts involves different organisations across central government and local bodies. The public authority (the authority) which entered into the original agreement is primarily responsible for managing the contract, including the expiry process.
  4. The SPV finances, builds, maintains and operates the assets over the contract term, usually 25 to 30 years. During this term, the authority makes payments, known as a unitary charge, to the SPV which cover debt repayment, financing costs, maintenance and any other services provided. The SPV is obliged to deliver the contract and, because the PFI model is designed to be self-monitoring, the SPV is also responsible for reviewing performance and reporting back to the authority.
  5. Across the UK, 328 authorities are responsible for PFI contracts, with 182 authorities responsible for only one contract. These authorities are at various levels across government, with local bodies, such as individual NHS trusts and local authorities, managing 82% of contracts. As such, they receive varying degrees of support from sponsor departments or supporting bodies, like the IPA.
  6. This report by the Comptroller and Auditor General will be available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Its reference in the House of Commons library is HC 369, session 2019-2021.
  7. The National Audit Office (NAO) is the UK’s independent public spending watchdog. It helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money and improve public services. The head of the NAO, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) Gareth Davies, certifies the accounts of all government departments and many public bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government has used resources efficiently, effectively and with economy, delivering value for money for the public. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

Contact

NAO Press Office
+44 (0)20 7798 7400 or email pressoffice@nao.org.uk

PN: 23/20