The final winding up of London Underground’s PPP maintenance agreements signals the end of perhaps the biggest and disappointingly underreported transport fiasco of our time. Its demise on the 7 May was certainly a good day to bury bad news from both Labour and Conservative perspectives.
Transport for London (TfL) was established in 2000 but control over the London Underground was not transferred to it until 2003. In the interim £455m (according to the NAO) was spent on setting up a 30-year PPP contract whereby three infrastructure companies (infracos) were to take over responsibility for the maintenance and renewal of London Underground’s rolling stock, stations, tracks, tunnels and signals. This was the brainchild of The Treasury and Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, who foisted the unwanted contract on TfL and the then Mayor Ken Livingstone despite legal challenges.
Under the contract the Metronet consortium won two of the concessions and Tube Lines the third. It was not long before Metronet went into Administration, in July 2007, as costs spiralled out of control. The cost to the taxpayer of its demise is estimated at £2bn. There then followed heated debates on the cost of works to be undertaken between Tube Lines and London Underground which appeals to the independent arbitrator failed to fully resolve. Eventually to bring the unhappy saga to an end TfL bought Tube Lines for £310m and at last it is free of a contract that few understood.
PPP was a Conservative invention which the Labour Government continued with great enthusiasm. It was a classic case of taking an inherently simple idea and applying it to more and more complex situations without fully understanding its limitations. The NAO, in a 2004 report on the London Underground deal was unable to say whether it offered value for money because it was just too complex. The idea that risk can be fully transferred from the public to the private sector is fundamentally flawed. The private sector is able to limit its liabilities and walk away from a loss making contract. The taxpayer is unable to do so.
PPP saw a Labour Government privatise the maintenance of the Underground and a Conservative Mayor finally renationalise it. The taxpayer has been saddled with almost £3bn worth of costs with nothing to show for it. Well that’s not true we got slightly cleaner stations and a bit of paint splashed around as those were the quick wins that gave the infracos the best return for the smallest outlay. The biggest scandal is that no politician has been held to account for the disaster and as usual the only winners are the lawyers.