Background: This is a guest blog by former MSP and journalist Campbell Martin on his experience campaigning against North Ayrshire Schools PFI/PPP and the new Documentary: “The Only Game in Town – The Great PFI Scandal“ produced by MacAulay Gibson films. You can view the documentary at the end of this post.
“Back in 2004, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Constituents approached me regarding plans by the local authority, North Ayrshire Council, to build four new schools, including one to accommodate a merger of two schools, which was to be located on the only public football pitches serving the two towns of Saltcoats and Ardrossan.
Had North Ayrshire Council not decided to build on the sports pitches, I would not have got involved in a campaign to save the playing fields, and would not have investigated the contract behind the local authority’s Public Private Partnership scheme. What I discovered was shocking.
Recently, in a documentary by MacAulay Gibson Productions, I reported on what happened in the North Ayrshire Schools PPP Project.
The Council had two bids, which seemed to provide the ‘genuine competition’ required by European Union Procurement Regulations. The whole thing was scrutinised by civil servants in the then Scottish Government’s Financial Partnerships Unit, which, in turn, was overseen by Partnerships UK. The latter body was staffed by civil servants seconded from the UK Treasury and by former employees of large corporations involved in delivering PFI/PPP construction contracts.
However, investigations showed one of the bids received by North Ayrshire Council came from a company formed after the local authority had invited tenders for its contract to build four schools. Comprehensive Estate Services Limited (CES), as a newly-formed company, had no accounts and had issued share capital valued at just £2.00. In addition, CES had no office. The headquarters it listed in bid documents was actually the office of a chartered accountant in the Fife village of Strathmiglo. The accountant said he let CES use his office as a postal address.
The bid documents submitted by Comprehensive Estate Services Limited, copies of which were secured under Freedom of Information legislation, indicated that CES was a subsidiary of a major Singapore-based construction company called CPG Corporation. Documents stated that CPG Corporation was the major shareholder in CES, at 56%.
However, when the Singapore corporation was contacted, President and Chief Executive, Mr Pang Toh Kang, replied, “Comprehensive Estate Services is not a subsidiary of CPG Corporation”, adding, “there is no cross-shareholding between CPG and CES”.
North Ayrshire Council was told about this lie in the bid submission of Comprehensive Estate Services Limited. Indeed, the local authority was made aware of further blatant lies and misrepresentations in the paperwork submitted by the Fife company. The Council, though, took no action and continued to publicly state that the bid from CES was credible and viable, and provided the required ‘genuine competition’.
The reality was that North Ayrshire Council only ever had one credible and viable bid for its school-building project, valued in 2006 at £380m. There was no ‘genuine competition’. In fact, there was no competition whatsoever.
By allowing the CES bid to remain until the very end of its procurement process, North Ayrshire Council gave the pretence of competition.
The matter was raised with the Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service, which instructed the then Strathclyde Police to carry out an investigation.
Less than two weeks after the police investigation commenced – and without the complainers being interviewed – the enquiry was concluded. The Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service then stated the matter was closed as it had been found there was no evidence of criminality.
In the MacAulay Gibson documentary, two former senior detectives reviewed the evidence originally presented to the police and Procurator Fiscal. In the opinion of one ex-detective, the evidence showed “criminality from start to finish”. The other former officer stated a common law crime of Forgery and Uttering should have been pursued.
All of this information relates to a PPP contract now costing taxpayers over £1m every month.
Full details of the investigation into North Ayrshire Schools PPP Project are revealed in ‘The Only Game In Town’.