The Scottish Futures Trust ("SFT") is up and running. It now has a full complement of staff, has issued a five year Corporate Plan and has held its first annual conference. So far so good. But what will it actually do? When will we see it deliver projects? And how will it achieve the much trumpeted £100-£150m yearly savings in infrastructure costs?
The SNP's initial idea was to create a body to replace, in their view, the 'costly PFI'. It would provide funding for infrastructure projects at low rates, by using public bonds, and hold the assets in trust for the benefit of the public. A laudable idea. That is, if the SNP had the power to create a body which could effectively borrow - which they did not.
After some two years of consultation the SFT was set up. Not as a funding body but, effectively, as a delivery vehicle.
It has five key roles:
- Aggregation and Collaboration - to find opportunities to improve co-operation and collaboration between public bodies.
- Centre of Expertise - to become a centre of expertise for infrastructure investment in Scotland, pursue new models and support operational projects.
- Delivery - to manage, co-ordinate and promote infrastructure projects and programmes.
- Funding and Financing - to advise on funding and financing approaches for projects.
- Validation - to review and advise on Key Stage Reviews, and value for money analysis.
The SFT is responsible for delivering the new £1.25bn schools investment programme and the £1bn hub community infrastructure initiative. It is becoming involved in the various waste projects coming to market, pursuing a low rental housing initiative and developing tax incremental financing proposals for regeneration projects. It is also reviewing various projects such as the Forth Replacement Crossing and the Borders Rail project. All to deliver value for money in infrastructure investment.
The SFT's development has not been without its difficulties and has been an easy target for political point scoring and media headlines. Not all of this has been the SFT's fault. It has stated that it operates at arm’s length from the Government and so is free to adopt an economical approach to infrastructure investment. But, without the promise of providing funding for projects, can it persuade public bodies to adopt particular models, or the SNP to, say, relax its anti-PFI stance?
Time will tell if the two year wait for SFT has been worth it. These are difficult times for public bodies. There are capital and budget constraints, yet the demand for infrastructure is high and urgent. This statement would only be echoed by the construction industry. For now the jury is out. But if the SFT can promote and accelerate infrastructure investment, work with public bodies to bring projects to market and re-invigorate a stalled industry, then it will have served a purpose and should be welcomed.