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Outlook: Fuzzy on tube privatisation

THE Transport Select Committee warns the Government not to waste taxpayers money employing a host of consultants to advise on the part- privatisation of London Underground. Hours later, as if by magic, the first tome appears on the subject, bearing the imprimatur of those old hands in the privatisation game, PricewaterhouseCoopers (yes, this is the way to write it) and Freshfields.

Undaunted, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, assures us that the taxpayer is not about to be fleeced by armies of merchant banks, accountants, lawyers and spin doctors. It is mere coincidence that they make up a good third of those 100-odd organisations who have expressed an interest in taking part in the Tube sell-off.

Mr Prescott also assures us that this is not a sell-off. This is a Public Private Partnership. The difference apparently is that the assets remain in public ownership. The private sector then borrows them, spends pounds 10bn on upgrading and maintenance, and then leases them back to London Underground, or rather something called Transport for London. This is the executive arm of the Greater London Authority which will be responsible for executing transport policy for the new Mayor of London (provided it is not one K Livingstone).

Clear so far? The picture is fuzzy, deliberately so perhaps, for Mr Prescott has not yet even decided whether the shooting match should be handed over lock, stock and barrel to one infrastructure company or whether it should be split among three.

Yesterday's "Market Sounding Paper" is also oddly vague on exactly how the private sector should charge for its services, other than explaining that charges will be based on the number of trains that run, the condition in which they arrive at the station and what sort of "ambience" they create for Tube travellers, whatever that may be.

Given the experience of British Rail privatisation, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that private sector involvement will equate automatically to improved services. Even so, the private sector would be hard pressed to be any worse than the existing public sector managers who, for instance, spend pounds 46m a year maintaining the Northern Line only for the result to be misery. What is certain is that since responsibility for running the trains and setting fares will remain with the public sector, then the Tube will continue to require a massive subvention from the taxpayer to enable Mr Prescott's partners to achieve private sector-style returns.