This week’s meeting of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee did little to lift the fog around the real cost of the public-private partnerships entrusted with developing much of our infrastructure, especially when the State tottered on the very edge of bankruptcy.
The committee is not at fault for this too-long-tolerated fog-thickening.
They were told that the requirement that all PPPs, on completion, must undergo a cost-benefit review has been met in 11 instances, but that only one of these — the Courts Service review of Dublin’s criminal courts’ complex — has been published.
Seán Ó Foghlú, secretary-general of the Department of Education, said no post-project reviews have been completed into school-building projects.
Does that admission cover the CIT Cork School of Music, which reopened under a PPP deal in 2007?
A rule designed to facilitate an objective overview of how billions in taxpayers’ money has been — and will be — spent has been ignored by a central arm of government.
And, ironically, by one of the arms most adept at insisting that others operate by the letter of the law. This must add a charge of hypocrisy to the charge of tardiness-bordering-on-ineptitude. So much for proactive, confidence-building transparency in public life.
The secretary-general of the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert Watt, assured the PAC that these reviews would be published. However, the delays raise more questions — and not all about money.
This keep-them-in-the dark policy seems another example of the when-we’re-ready hubris too evident in areas of public administration. Tail, wag, dog, etc.
Some of the figures offered to the PAC indicate why these reviews have yet to see the light of day. The State has paid €34m to the operator of the Limerick tunnel — opened in July, 2010 — because traffic has not matched projections. That ongoing-burden deal runs until 2041.
A Transport Infrastructure Ireland official said that “conservative estimates” anticipate further payments of about €150m over that period, bringing the State’s bill to about €200m.
Labour TD, Alan Kelly, said the contract demanding that level of payment was “insane”.
However, Michael Kennedy, who is responsible for PPP procurement at Transport Infrastructure Ireland, insisted the terms were “not insane”. Sadly, nobody can, with any certainty, come to a reasonable conclusion on that conflict, as the post-project report has not been published.
The PAC also heard that the estimated cost of all PPPs — including transport, education, and housing — is expected to cost the State €9.6bn, before various contracts run their course.
These are such tremendous figures that the absence of public oversight, despite an obligation to provide it, must raise huge concerns.
These concerns have already begun to change the landscape in Britain, where many local authorities, once the full cost and rigidity of PPPs arrangements became known, try to end those arrangements.
Further doubts are raised about these deals, as the Project Ireland 2040 plan suggests that Government does not envisage an important role for PPPs over the next decade.
Why? Once bitten, twice shy?