Private cash and public virtue

4th December 1998 at 00:00
ONE OF the tests by which traditionalists among Scottish Labour supporters distinguish themselves from adherents of New Labour is in their opposition to public-private partnerships as a way of financing projects, not least in education.

Two developments add to the tension. The first was the Pounds 330 million package unveiled recently by the Secretary of State, allowing eight education authorities to build or refurbish schools. The second is the report that a significant proportion of Labour candidates for winnable seats in the Scottish parliament are of traditional trade union background and against the PPP concept. They could influence policy about working with the private sector if Labour is in the driving seat come May.

For many on the left, the division is between purity and practicality. Local authority leaders in particular have learnt that there is no other way to find the cash. Central government has relaxed the reins a little following the comprehensive spending review, but a go-ahead for capital projects is dependent on finding more than the Government will provide. So as Donald Dewar himself said, "it's a choice of managing effectively or doing without".

PPPs are criticised, however, for not being effective. Ownership and control are taken out of local authority hands and in the long term the bill to the private contractor will turn out higher than it would be for public building. But the backlog of much needed works is such that councils and customers are willing to take their chance with the only option available. MSPs of all parties may well be forced to the same conclusion.

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