Northern Ireland: A new dawn
Private finance initiatives (PFI) in Northern Ireland have in recent years enjoyed (or, more accurately, endured) an unhappy depiction in the local media, ranging from economic criticism to unfortunate allusions to wolves in fairy stories. Hyperbolic tales of mismanagement, sharp practice and drains on the public purse have undoubtedly impacted on the public perception of PFI, at a time when the global credit crunch has fixed a keener, more critical eye on the administration of public expenditure. All is not, however, doom and gloom. A closer assessment of the horror stories that the Fourth Estate have seized upon to demonise PFI quite quickly shows that the criticism is unfair. The most high profile example is the Balmoral High School PFI Project which came under fire as the school closed some five years into the concession period. However the reality was that the problem lay not in PFI or profiteering, but rather in a problem in predicting school numbers and the demographic backdrop, a problem which has taxed decision-makers in Northern Ireland since time immemorial, and a problem which would almost certainly have put paid to the prospects of success for the school regardless of which procurement method was chosen. It is a salutary lesson for any public authority that there must be a clear need for a project, whether or not the project is being procured under PFI or a more traditional avenue.
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