7:84 is an angry agitprop theatre company from Glasgow whose latest production puts private finance under the spotlight. Building invited some PFI bigwigs to join the audience – and play their parts in the ensuing debate. George Hay ducked the rotten tomatoes.

The cast assembles

It was fairly easy to spot the PFI professionals in the bar of The Arches theatre, central Glasgow. They were the only ones wearing suits. As we awkwardly sipped lager while waiting for the main event to begin, the worlds of the private finance initiative and the theatre seemed far apart indeed.

We were here to watch Private Agenda, a play devised by the 7:84 theatre company – so named because 7% of the UK population apparently controls 84% of the country’s wealth. The company’s passionate and often angry work is centred around issues of social justice, and its latest production puts Scotland’s public services under the spotlight. The play focuses on the effects of PFI, as 7:84 is convinced of the link between PFI procurement and a series of construction controversies across Scotland: the delays to the East Lothian Schools project, the tolls on the Skye Bridge, and the £1bn cost to taxpayers of the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Every night, the audience watches the performance by the four-strong cast, then gets a chance to react in a 45-minute debate chaired by the director Lorenzo Mele.

Into this hotbed of radicalism stepped our suits, invited by Building’s very own theatre critic. Alec Miller, regional director at Mowlem Scotland, would represent big business. David Telford, a director at subcontractor VB Contracts, lost £480,000 on the East Lothian Schools project when contractor Ballast went bust, and so has an idea of what happens when PFI goes wrong. Andrew Pinkerton, a director of architect Keppie Design, would definitely have a view on the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary: his practice designed it.

What we wanted to do was thrash out some of the controversies surrounding PFI and see if polarised views on this subject could be reconciled. Is PFI the root cause of all that has gone wrong with public services under New Labour? Is it really the final insult for all Britain’s harassed, overworked teachers, nurses and doctors? Or is it simply a neat funding mechanism that allows new hospitals and schools to be built and maintained, without overstretching the public purse?

Everyone has their own perspective. The nurse slaving away in the supposedly subtropical confines of the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary is unlikely to be a fan of PFI. The finance director of a PFI specialist who has just tripled his turnover thanks to three 30-year PFI contracts, will, on the whole, think it’s pretty good. The interesting thing about the two hours ahead was that you don’t often get the two sides in the same room.

Act I: The play

Artistic director Mele and his team of actors devised their play by talking to the many public sector workers up and down Scotland who are furious about their new PFI-funded facilities. The complaints they heard were all too familiar. The nurse: “I haven’t met anyone who likes working here. The new call-bell system is stupid. It’s six feet off the ground. I’m five foot three. How can I reach it?” The hospital porter: “The new infirmary is way out of town – really hard and expensive to get to.” The chemistry teacher in East Lothian: “I wasn’t consulted about a single aspect of my new classroom.” These words, uttered verbatim by the actors, give the play its hard political edge.

And that’s all very well, but any good theatre also requires conflict – and conflict means baddies. One actor ended a tirade against big business by singling out the big-name contractors getting fat off PFI proceeds. “Of course,” she said bitterly, “they’re only interested in their market share.” Next to me, Mowlem’s Miller shifted uncomfortably. We began to privately calculate the odds of us leaving the theatre alive.

The play itself was well acted, although the actors had little to do other than adjust their features into ever- more contorted expressions of outrage. Honest public sector workers, who were always Scottish, were victimised by supercilious PFI advocates, who tended to be Australian or, worse, English. The problem with the production was that it was real life rather than drama, and so there was little imagination in the presentation. The action simply moved during the course of an hour from one disaster to the next, from Edinburgh to East Lothian to Skye and finally to Perth, where the two female cast members played the roles of two mums who had formed an action group to prevent the closure of a network of small local hospitals in favour of a new PFI scheme 40 miles away.

At the interval between the play and the debate, we shuffled into the bar a little shell-shocked. VB Contracts’ Telford was unrepentant. “The construction industry will build whatever it’s asked to,” he asserted. “If the money’s there, it’ll be an Arabian palace. If not, it’ll be a dog kennel. The company producing the play was pretty obviously left wing and they clearly had a left-of-centre agenda. I could understand the anger of the characters in the play but I don’t feel guilty. Rightly or wrongly, the finance isn’t there to do it any other way.”

Keppie Design’s Pinkerton seemed resigned. “I don’t think the play’s helped to get rid of the misconceptions about PFI,” he sighed. “If anything it has reinforced them: it was quite aggressive.” Mowlem’s Alec Miller didn’t wait to be shouted at: he went home.

Act II: The debate

Back inside, the debate seemed to be ploughing a similarly one-sided furrow. The four actors and Mele were joined on stage by Jean Turner, Independent MSP, who had stood for election in order to campaign to save Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow. Together they fielded questions that made it clear that most of the audience shared their negative view of PFI.

But then, in a dramatic twist worthy of melodrama’s E E heyday, Andrew Pinkerton stood up and demanded the microphone. Riled by one of the actor’s assertions that his hospital had been built “with no consultation, to the minimum specifications”, he silenced the growing anger in the room with his calm and specific response: “The Edinburgh Royal Infirmary external wall cladding was 15% dearer than what would have been allowed had it been a traditional procurement with the cost standards normally used on NHS buildings,” he said in even tones. “The advantage of spending that extra 15% was that there was no need to maintain it for 25 years, and it provided higher thermal and sound insulation and safer conditions for workers installing them.”

He went on: “The standards for everything in the building are set by NHS guidelines and technical memoranda. It’s not the contractor’s or architect’s fault. All the installations are signed off by the NHS board.”

And on: “The reason why there’s this massive building programme is that for 40 years there was no investment in the maintenance of public facilities. We’ve got such a huge backlog of work. What you’ve got to realise is that by going down the PFI route, the maintenance is covered for the next 30 years. It’s not a debt, it’s a payment made to help fund the maintenance work.

And there are strict obligations on the PFI company to maintain these standards.”

And that was that. His very own deus ex machina, Pinkerton very effectively filled gaps in the audience’s knowledge and restored a balance of argument.

A happy ending of sorts, then. But we still hadn’t got very far in establishing a consensus on PFI. What debate there had been thus far consisted of Pinkerton’s lecture and a host of angry anti-PFI theatre-goers shouting at each other. What we needed was reasoned debate. Luckily, Andrew Pinkerton and Lorenzo Mele were willing to take a curtain call …


Two drinkers, Mele and Pinkerton, sit brooding over pints in a dingy Glasgow pub.

Mele: What about the specific points raised tonight, like the call bell switch six feet off the ground, and the fact it was far too hot in the infirmary last year? To me, that’s an architectural problem.

Pinkerton: A lot of these things come from very standardised manuals. We produce room data sheets for the PFI contractor, who then gets them signed off by the health board. Now maybe there were faults in it. But that’s not PFI’s fault – exactly the same processes are used in our Cork hospital project, which is traditionally funded.

Mele: Take the infirmary. It cost £184m to build. Over 25 years it’ll cost £1bn to pay back. The difference is £800m, and it can’t all be maintenance. A lot of it is profit. The profit margins of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Balfour Beatty [of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary consortium Consort Healthcare] must be going through the roof.

Pinkerton: I think you’ve got to break down that billion pounds. Even with public sector borrowing you have an interest to pay on that borrowing.

Mele: It’s 4% compared to 13-14% for the private sector, though.

Pinkerton: It’s not right to compare £184m capital costs and £1bn over 25 years, with maintenance and borrowing. The cost of borrowing is greater – of course it is, the banks are making a profit. But you’re also guaranteed the maintenance – which is always the first thing to be cut when the money runs out normally.

Mele: I just think it’s a flawed way of building things – it’s open to abuse. I think it would be better if it was all publicly owned and managed. I don’t like the idea of Consort Healthcare owning and running it. Their primary concern is quite rightly with their shareholders, not with the provision of services.

Pinkerton: A lot of the difficulties you highlight – switches and so on – are not a direct result of PFI.

Mele: Well, the people I spoke to believe it is.

Pinkerton: And that’s the misconception. I’m not saying it’s perfect but there are positives to PFI and sometimes in the public mind PFI equals bad. But they’re not actually understanding properly why they’re saying it’s bad. They’re saying it’s bad because it’s PFI. As a professional in the construction industry, PFI gives us a significant volume of work, which wouldn’t be there for us otherwise.

The two men return to staring at their pints. And, with the tension unresolved, the curtain descends.