'Don't blame us for PFI deals costing hundreds of millions of pounds' says former leader of Northamptonshire County Council

Mick Young
Mick Young

The leader in charge of Northamptonshire County Council when its lengthy PFI deals were first entered into believes it was his successors who in fact failed the public - by not renegotiating the onerous terms.

Mick Young was instrumental in forming deals to build dozens of new schools and care homes in the county through PFI when he was in charge of the authority between 1998 and 2004.

The result of the contracts has left the council with a £1.5billion debt legacy and residential care facilities that are 70 per cent empty because of a rigid entry criteria that has not changed since 2003.

But in his first interview with this newspaper for more than a decade the former Labour councillor said he still has no regrets for signing the deals because he believes the county would be left with decaying, 1970s-built public buildings if he had not.

Though he accepts the contract with Shaw Healthcare to operate four care homes is no longer fitr for the modern age – he believes his Conservative successors have spent too much time pointing blame at him when they should have been trying to amend the terms of the deals.

He said: “I have worked in many situations where I have had to renegotiate contracts and I don’t see why, 13 years after I was involved, people have made no effort to do so. All they have done is blame their predecessors.

“It’s very easy for people to just take one decision without any context at all. It is important to understand where social care was and the trajectory it has taken since.

“PFI was the only way to get things built.”

Mr Young said that with the way public sector borrowing was capped in the late 1990s, PFI became the only method available to build new facilities.

In January 2003 Northamptonshire County Council signed a 25-year contract with Shaw Healthcare to build and operate four specialist dementia care centres in the county for that period.

But Mr Young says the landscape of the care system of changed greatly over the past 15 years.

At the time the Shaw contract was signed – he says the Northamptonshire was in desperate need of residential places for people with dementia because less people were being cared for at home and the private market had not swelled to its current level.

The condition of the county-run homes at the time was also a cause for concern.

“We had care homes that were actually woefully inadequate,” he said. “People were sharing rooms, they were sharing bathrooms. It was really below the standard you would expect of a civil society.

“When I was leader people were dying in care homes and there were questions over whether the facilities themselves were to blame.”

But today the council, the first in the country to be declared effectively bankrupt in 2018, is paying extortionate amounts for the service still, even though last year it was revealed that between 50 and 70 per cent of the 204 Shaw beds were sitting empty each week.

More than half of those referred for a place at the care homes – such as Turn Furlong in Northampton - were being turned away for not meeting the care threshold.

This is thought to have been costing the authority roughly £2million a year over and above the cost of the contract.

Yet it was only when Government commissioners were drafted in to run the authority in 2018 that work finally got underway to renegotiate the contract.

In July, Shaw was ordered to pay the council back the relatively small sum of £100,000.

Mr Young said that another PFI contract, signed a year after his departure, but largely negotiated by his leadership team was entered into amid a similar climate.

In the early 2000s, the county’s children were studying in a cohort of 1970s built schools that were in desperate need of maintenance.

When Mr Young was the cabinet member for education, for instance, the council discussed a £20 million programme of repairs just to keep rain from leaking into classrooms.

“We had school buildings full of buckets because roofs were leaking,” he added.

As a result, the council entered into two separate PFI contracts to build 12 new schools, refurbish a further 30 and maintain the buildings for a 32-year period.

The overall cost of the scheme will total just over £1 billion by the time it is paid. The actual cost of the building work, however, is only worth £200 million.

Some £10 million a year of the repayments covers interest alone.

Looking back, Mr Young said that he would have financed the scheme in a different way, had the option been open to council leaders at the time.

“The only other option was simply not building those schools,” he said.

“If the county had have been allowed to raise the money in a more traditional capital borrowing way, I would have preferred to have done that.”