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Down our road

Despite misgivings in Britain, the idea of private cash for the public sector has been embraced by South Africa and many other nations, says Paul Gosling
Privatisation on the British model is being adopted in every continent. Now, for all the criticism of it at home, the Private Finance Initiative is being exported to solve a world-wide need to modernise infrastructure and improve public sector efficiency.

Hambros Bank has even gone so far as to place British PFI experts in South Africa and Canada to advise on equivalent schemes there, and it is also involved in public/private partnerships in Finland and Portugal. "More and more governments across the world will leap on the band wagon," James Stewart, head of UK project finance at Hambros, predicts. "A lot is happening around the world on this, and the UK experience is very useful."

The South African government has just announced that it is looking for private finance for six new prisons, and is also looking to make the private sector a partner in the renovation of its tax collection services.

David Cain, who is on secondment to the government's Private Finance Panel from Deloitte and Touche, confirms that South Africa is the most enthusiastic PFI disciple. "I met finance ministers of South African provinces at the beginning of this year to give a presentation on the PFI," he says. "Many were taken by it as a way of developing infrastructure across the provinces."

The attractions of the PFI are obvious for countries with out-dated infrastructures, enormous public demand for renewal, and problems with collecting sufficient taxes - much of Africa, and central and eastern Europe, for example. But even the wealthiest European countries are also examining the PFI, and government representatives from Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands have all had briefings from Treasury officials on the the British experience.

"What the PFI in the UK is responding to is trends common across the world," Iain Watmore, Andersen Consulting's partner responsible for government in the UK, Ireland and South Africa, argues. "Governments are finding it increasingly hard to finance infrastructure out of tax revenues. They are starting to get their operations more into the private sector. They are looking to purchase more from the private sector on a payment by result basis, rather than payment by inputs. And they are trying to get private sector innovations into government. People are inventing different solutions to those problems - but all have PFI-like characteristics."

"I think it is highly exportable to Canada and the United States," David Cain suggests. "There is still a tendency by state and city governments there to own and manage their own properties rather than transfer risks into the private sector. Canadians have done a lot of bridge building projects using schemes close to the PFI. Their own reform programme is based on privatisation."

Andrew Porter, a director in corporate finance at Price Waterhouse, says that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are all interested in road building that is paid for on a results basis over the next 10 or 20 years.

But the British PFI model needs to be adapted for use in other countries. "The UK model doesn't always fit," Hambros's James Stewart says. "We have had to work hard looking at local cultures, which is why we have also recruited locals in South Africa and Canada."

Andersen's Iain Watmore adds: "There is nothing more blue chip than the UK government, but that doesn't apply to all governments across the world. People will be anxious. South Africa looks a good bet today, but I wouldn't like to say that about every developing country. There is a risk that you will build the asset and not get paid a penny."

It is also important to learn lessons from other countries where the public/private partnerships are beginning to work more effectively than in Britain. "One of the things Australia has done," Mr Stewart says, "is to recruit specialist project negotiators to lead negotiations on behalf of the public sector. They have prioritised projects, working on a few, select, large projects, and put a lot of resources into making these deals happen. In the UK we have a much broader-brush approach."

Andrew Porter of Price Waterhouse suggests that other countries' legal and financial systems can bring the public and private sectors together more comfortably than ours does. "The French have been doing financing through concessions for years, but the French legal system works differently. They are not so obsessed by whether something is public or private sector borrowing. Grant maintained schools here are outside the public sector borrowing requirement, but NHS trusts are inside. There is no consistency.

"The UK government has decreed that the PFI must be off-balance sheet, but it should be about value for money, and whether it is on or off balance sheet should be irrelevant."

Britain may be the teacher on PFI, but the best teachers learn things from their pupils as well