Some of the most shocking aspects of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) are laid bare in a new book by human geography academic Stuart Hodkinson.
Safe as Houses examines how PFI contracts are used in the social housing sector—with disastrous consequences.
One of the most outrageous elements of the privatised housing industry that gave birth to the PFI deals is self-certification.
This means that the private providers are signing off their work as adequate and safe, despite it often being anything but.
“The system of building regulation, self-certification and building control is endemic,” Stuart told Socialist Worker.
“Many people still imagine that the local authority is checking the work being done by its contractors. Yet, while most local authorities do have building control departments, these are often competing for work with the private sector for building control services.
“Building control is required to check construction work to ensure it conforms with regulations. But the amount of actual checking that gets done is, legally, very small.”
A toxic system of self-governance means property developers and facilities management firms are marking their own homework.
This can mean private contractors produce their own “customer service satisfaction” surveys and hand them over to councils.
It means anyone treated badly—thrown out of their homes and made to live in intolerable conditions—has no way of complaining through official channels.
In the book, Stuart details some of the most shocking cases he came across.
People have been forced into fuel poverty and have suffered ill health because of spiralling bill costs.
Other failures appear at first glance to be more banal—an ignored email, for instance. But these instances mount up to form the “culture of indifference” which led to the Grenfell Tower fire, Stuart argues.
“The context matters. And the context is often years of tenants’ complaints being ignored.” Cosy deals are cooked up between the public and private sectors. Contracts are handed out not only for the construction, or redevelopment of buildings, but then also for the provision of services afterwards.
“PFI is an extreme version of the self-regulated, privatised system we’ve got of delivering public services,” argues Stuart.
The solution to the PFI nightmare, according to Stuart, is to end the self-regulatory system, re-invigorate tenants’ organisations, and “gradually ending PFI and outsourcing”.
“Labour’s position is that PFI, in principle, needs to go,” said Stuart.
“John McDonnell has said Labour will look to nationalise Special Purpose Vehicle contracts, although possibly not those which have only a short time left.
“There are many potential pitfalls in abruptly cancelling PFI contracts because of the secretive nature of them. We simply don’t know all of the complex legal arrangements involved.”
PFIs should be stopped and scrapped with contracts brought back into public hands.
At the heart of any solution to the privatised housing nightmare must be a programme of public investment that puts people’s lives before private greed.