Shhhh. Don’t say the L word. Let’s report on the school closure debacle without mentioning who was the government at the time which decided to mortgage the future of public services to the shoddier practices of the private sector at ruinously high rates of interest because it was a wizzard wheeze that kept it of the books during their term in office. Let’s not mention which party controlled the local authority in question with its lamentable record of controlling and supervising infrastructure projects that makes the South Sea Bubble seem like a model of financial probity. If we keep schtum long enough with a bit of luck we can find an angle to blame the closures of Edinburgh schools on the Scottish Government, and then it will all be the fault of the SNP. Then order and balance will be restored to the yooniverse and all will be well.
That seems to be the attitude of the Scottish Unionist commentariat as the news of the PFI schools debacle broke, a scandal which in a normal country with a normal media would be shaping up to be a perfect storm of Labour government mendaciousness, private greed, and Labour local authority incompetence and stupidity. If no one mentions the fact that all the schools were built during Labour’s term in office in Holyrood, using a financing wheeze devised by the Tories and leapt on with avaricious glee by Gordie Broon and the Westminions, then perhaps Joe Public won’t blame the Labour party or the Tories for the lamentable state of public school buildings or the soaring debt owed by local authorities. We can’t be having a major scandal implicating the L-word party in the weeks before the Scottish parliamentary elections.
Oh wait! We’ve found the angle. According to a random Tory MSP it’s all the fault of the SNP for refusing calls for school buildings checks. Phew. That was a close one, if this had gone on much longer we might have had to mention Labour in a negative context after all, and that would have been really bad especially because if you say Labour three times the ghost of James Kelly’s career appears before you to drone on about the iniquities of SNP housing policy and bore you to death. You might think that local authorities should be the bodies responsible for checking and supervising council buildings built for the council under contracts that the council entered into, but that would mean the fault for the buildings’ shoddy construction was laid back at the door of the Labour party where it rightfully belongs, and we can’t be having that in the Scottish media.
PFI was invented by the Tories and embraced lovingly by both Labour and the Lib Dems. It was an accounting trick designed to fool voters, allowing government and local authorities to build infrastructure projects but keep them off the books temporarily. The cost was kicked down the line, costs which have been soaring. Councils which are now complaining that their budgets are being squeezed are having to devote increasing amounts of their budgets to servicing debts incurred by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories under dodgy PFI schemes, schemes which we now see were in many cases poor value for money and which delivered infrastructure which is not fit for purpose.
The debt owed by Scottish local authorities now totals almost £15 billion, which works out at over £6150 per household, compared to £3100 per home in England. Last year Scottish local authorities had to devote over £1.5 billion of their tight budgets to servicing their debts, much of which was spend in servicing their PFI payments. Having to pay so much to deal with their debts, councils are forced to borrow yet more, and end up in a vicious circle of borrowing and debt while overal budgets are squeezed as Holyrood is forced to pass on the cuts imposed on the Scottish budget by the Tory government. That’s the toxic legacy of Gordie Broon’s prudence.
That would be the same Tory government that few in Scotland voted for, that has but a single MP in Scotland, but which we have to suffer because Labour and the other Unionist parties told us we’d be better together with the UK. Nevertheless, the difficulties of local authorities still manage to be the fault of the SNP, and those Unionist controlled local authorities are the ones which howl the loudest about the problems they face due to the actions of their own parties. It’s still all the fault of the SNP though. Just because.
One of the first acts of the SNP government in 2007 was to abolish the iniquitous PFI scheme and replace it with a non-profit scheme. PFI was a get rich quick scheme for the private sector, a get poor later scheme for local government and the public purse. We’re experiencing its ill effects now. The private sector seeks to maximise profits, and if it can get away with shoddy building practices because it hasn’t been properly supervised by a Labour local authority with a history of failing to supervise infrastructure projects properly, and a history of corruption in its building works, then it’s going to cut corners and cut costs. The result are schools with walls that fall like the walls of Jericho the moment someone rings a school bell. Meanwhile 9000 Edinburgh kids are left without schooling in the run up to their exams. It’s still not the fault of Labour though. Oh no. We can’t be having that. Only one party is ever to blame for anything in Scotland. Let’s not mention the L word.
Labour and the Tories embraced PFI with the same zeal they now show in trying to disavow any responsibility for its malign results. But then they’re aided and abetted by a media which equally zealously seeks to blame the SNP for each and every ill to beset Scottish society.
This particular screw up is laid squarely at Labour’s door and that party is the one which needs to be held to account for it. The silence of the Scottish media on that score whines volumes about their dysfunctional relationship with the public.
BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE Barking Up the Right Tree has now been published and is an anthology of my articles for The National newspaper. You can submit an advance order for the book on the Vagabond Voices website at http://vagabondvoices.co.uk/?page_id=1993
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