Rory Steel: SupportSNIC Welcomes Infrastructure Company Commission


Rory Steel of the SupportSNIC campaign has welcomed the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission and the announcement that it shall investigate the adoption of Common Weal’s proposal for a Scottish National Infrastructure Company. The following is an article by him for Common Weal explaining what an infrastructure company will do and why it is a game-changer for Scottish infrastructure procurement.

On Sunday at SNP conference, it was announced that the Scottish Government would be forming a Commission to advise on how Scotland’s £7billion worth of infrastructure investment should be spent. That Commission will also look at a bigger idea: a publicly owned Scottish National Infrastructure Company (SNIC). The commitment was then followed up by Nicola Sturgeon in her conference address – underlining the policy.

Infrastructure and procurement aren’t the most exciting subjects. It can be quite a boring and technical area with laborious processes implemented from an EU to local government level. But when we talk about improving health and education for example, it’s impossible without quality infrastructure.

For years, big corporations like Carillion were procured to manage large scale public contracts. Their collapse which costed thousands of jobs and jeopardised several projects has further entrenched growing anti-privatisation sentiments amongst the public. Even for areas like infrastructure which aren’t viewed as being on the same level as, for example, our NHS.

After decades of greed and economic abuse, the public are beginning to recognise that the private sector don’t have their interests or quality infrastructure at heart. They care only about their bottom line and they will cut corners – as we have seen with shoddy school buildings – along the way to increase their profits or sub-contract to the lowest bidder using zero-hours contracts and paying measly wages.

Once the corners have been cut, the workers exploited, and the project completed to be just good enough, the money paid by the public gets sliced up and dished out to shareholders. In the case of Carillion’s collapse, projects aren’t even completed putting smaller businesses into cash flow problems.

SNIC follows a number of other public institutions announced by the Scottish Government, including a National Investment Bank and a National Energy Company. This is seeking to bring in-house and fulfil a number of services and levers which were once outsourced which will now do those jobs responsibly and in the public interest.

Other than the negatives endured during projects, there is the matter of massive Private Finance Initiative (PFI) debt run up under Labour through Public-Private Partnerships – a clever accounting trick which conned the public into thinking they were getting a bargain when really we were signing up to feudal-esque deal to line the pockets of the rich for decades and to the tune of billions.

This still exists under the Scottish Government under Non-Profit Distribution with profits capped at 12%. Instead of looking for private finance, direct investment can be sought from the Scottish Government, local authorities (who have borrowing powers), but most importantly, the National Investment Bank. Public money used for public projects for the public good. Cut out the Private and bring in Public-Public Partnerships.

And it is the public and ordinary members who are driving SNIC. At the start of this year, former SNP MPs Anne McLaughlin, George Kerevan and I stared our campaign to see SNIC become a reality – Support SNIC. Following months of speaking to branches across Scotland and with the support of a number of elected representatives, we got it onto the agenda for June conference and was passed with minimal opposition. Just four months later and it was being announced by the First Minister as a possibility.

We didn’t want to simply talk about an idea, we wanted to work for it. The entire process was an exercise in mass democracy. Unlike many motions which make it to conference, our motion had numerous and the longest list of backers. And unlike many other motions which were passed and are then forgotten about, ours may come to fruition.

The Commission will only advise on establishing a SNIC, but it is a major step in the right direction and shows clear intent. The devil will be in the detail, but with local authorities and trade unions being included in the Commission, we are hopeful that things will progress and the SNP membership will be responsible for putting SNIC on the radar of decision makers.

Announced also was a raft of criteria for businesses to meet to be eligible for public contracts. Employment Law is reserved. But how we spend our money and who we give it to is not. Not waiting for SNIC to be established, Fair Work First ideals will be enshrined in current procurement practices, including investment in skills and training, no exploitative zero hours contracts, action on gender pay, and genuine workforce engagement, including with trade unions, and payment of the Living Wage. We can force businesses the public invest in to invest back into the public.

While not the most exciting area, infrastructure and procurement can change the lives of individuals, families and can become a major player in our economy where we finally break from the laissez-faire, ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ attitude of neo-liberal economic policy which has dominated government since Thatcher.

People aren’t trusting corporations to act in their interests and they aren’t trusting politicians either. Ordinary people of the public and parties are beginning to realise their power and call for a major change to the society around them by taking back ownership and doing it ourselves.

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