How Do We Know Our Public Buildings are Safe?
There are more than 800 PFI contracts across the UK, covering thousands of public buildings: these include 120 hospitals, more than 1000 schools, and homes for around 80,000 residents. These unaccountable schemes cost the public at least £10bn in repayments each year.
It is becoming clearer that privatisation and outsourcing in all its forms not only costs us more but often fails to deliver fit-for-purpose buildings that are safe for use. From the Edinburgh PFI Schools Scandal, to the millions of pounds worth of fire safety defects discovered in major hospitals and the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, there is growing evidence that buildings constructed ‘for profit’ are at greater risk of serious structural and fire safety defects due to a toxic combination of rolled back regulation, over reliance on self-monitoring and self-certification and an absence of local authority oversight.
PFI was sold to the public and to local authorities on the basis that it transferred ‘risk to the private sector and delivered “value for money”. In reality the contracts are rigged in favour of the private sector companies who monitor and sign off their own work, cut corners and reduce costs in order to increase profits at the expense of provision; and, in the end, the real ‘risk’ to health and safety remains with those patients, public sector workers, students and residents who live, work or are cared for in PFI buildings.
People vs PFI are calling for
- A national safety audit into the safety of public buildings constructed and refurbished under self-monitoring, for -profit PFI contracts.
- A people’s audit of local authorities to hold them to account for the decisions they make and the money they continue to spend on PFI.
National Safety Audit backed by Fire Brigades’ Union
This call is already supported by the Fire Brigades Union whose chief officer Dave Green said: “The FBU are extremely concerned about the risks posed by poor fire safety in hospitals and schools built ‘for profit’, which seems to go in tandem with an astonishing lack of care both for those who use these facilities and for the firefighters who are called to the scene when things go wrong.
“Buildings need to have clear and accessible fire exits and be made of quality materials that are resistant to fire – there can’t be short cuts when it comes to safety. The FBU would like to see the introduction of independent inspections of all public buildings before they are used. The current system where such checks can be carried out by the builders themselves is clearly unsafe.”
How You Can Get Involved!
When Central and Local government are not acting in the interest of citizens, we must call them to account and demand change. People vs PFI are supporting citizen-led local action by providing information and tools for those who want to challenge their Council’s financial decision-making and spending on PFI schemes.
Councils have a duty to conduct their affairs in the best interest of residents and to ensure best value from public spending. As a resident, you have significant powers to ensure councils are held to account for the financial decisions they make on your behalf. If you think the council has made a decision that is not in the public interest or may even be unlawful you have the right to object to the accounts.
What’s ‘Unlawful’ about PFI Spending?
- The initial decision to enter into the PFI contracts was based on ‘for profit’ advice from audit consultants and was not made in the public interest.
- The ‘value-for-money’ calculations and ‘public sector comparator’ were rigged in favour of PFI at procurement stage, and access to public funding was restricted to ensure that the PFI option was the “only game in town”
- Continuing to make monthly payments without carrying out a full safety audit of buildings is wholly unreasonable and irrational and the Council is exposing those using PFI buildings to significant risk if they fail to make adequate arrangements to ensure the private contractor always meets performance standards
When Can you Make an Objection?
There is a limited time for objecting to the accounts and asking an external auditor to provide a report in the public interest. In England and Wales this period covers 20 working days – and has to include a common period of inspection during which all councils’ accounts are available to inspect. This year, that period lasts from 3 to 14 July 2017. In Scotland this public inspection period is only 15 working days and must begin no later than 1 July 2017.
Who can object?
Anyone can ask for information during the inspection period but you must be a local elector (on the electoral register) in the area if you want to ask the external auditor to produce a public interest report. If you would like to challenge your local authority but don’t want to act alone, you can ask someone else to represent you even if they are not a local elector.
If you think any item in the accounts is ‘unlawful’ you can ask the external auditor to make a Report in the Public Interest and apply to the High Court to have an item or items ruled as unlawful. If a Report in the Public Interest is issued (this could take several months) it is then sent to the Council who have to:
- call a public meeting to consider the report
- respond publicly – usually within a month
Details about how to challenge council’s financial decisions, including a template objection on PFI schemes have just been launched by Research for Action in this new toolkit to help citizens hold local government to account over financial decision making. To download visit Research for Action website
If you are interested in finding out more or getting involved in investigating or or objecting to PFI schemes in your local authority area, contact us firstname.lastname@example.org