The Lost Billions PFI scandal: Sussex Police under fire for mothballing custody suite it is still paying to use
Controversial ‘private finance’ deals have left some public bodies stuck with costly buildings they are no longer using but cannot sell.
Yesterday, as part of the JPIMedia Lost Billions PFI investigation, The News revealed that the cost of PFI contracts has ballooned in many cases to far higher than originally budgeted for.
The deal to rebuild Queen Alexandra as a ‘superhospital’ was due to cost £1bn over the contract’s 25-year lifetime but is now forecast to cost £1.7bn, and a deal signed by Portsmouth City Council with Colas to maintain roads is due to cost £56m more than the £586m thought in 2004.
Now we can reveal how a police force has come under fire for not using one of the custody suites it pays a private company millions of pounds to run.
Sussex Police is now seeking to renegotiate its contract, with Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne saying that ’with the benefit of hindsight’, the deal would not be one she would agree to today.
The custody suite in Chichester is one of four in the county that was built as part of a 30-year private finance initiative (PFI) contract agreed in 2001.
Under the agreement, the contractor also provides custody services at these and two other custody suites in Sussex in exchange for a yearly payment, which amounted to £11.6m in 2018/19.
But the facility in Chichester has not been used since November last year, prompting criticisms that taxpayers’ money is being wasted.
Dr James Walsh, a councillor who chaired the former Sussex Police Authority in the 1990s, said: ‘The fact that the Chichester suite is not being used, even though it is being paid for by this scheme, just rubs salt into the wounds.’
He said the custody suite should either be being used or force bosses should be looking at ways of ending ‘this expensive waste of money’.
Sussex Police defended the decision to mothball the site, with a spokesman saying it had the ‘lowest usage of the six custody centres across Sussex’.
Sussex Police was looking into a possible alternative use for the facility, the spokesman said. Any alternative use would need to be agreed by Sussex Custodial Services, the contractor, which continues to own the suite until the PFI contract expires in 2031.
At a meeting of the Sussex Police and Crime Panel last month, Chichester District Councillor Roy Briscoe asked the commissioner whether the PFI scheme was good value for money.
Mrs Bourne said: ‘This was signed many, many years before I came into office.
‘For all the reasons we know around PFIs, probably with the benefit of hindsight it might not have been the decision I would make today.’
She added: ‘However we have done the best with what we have.’
Chief finance officer Ian McCulloch said the team was in discussions to renegotiate the terms of the PFI contract, which continues to run for another 12 years.
He said the force had ‘effectively mothballed’ the Chichester site, with detainees instead being taken to a facility in Worthing.
‘However it does have the capacity to be opened up at short notice should they require it,’ he said.
He said the costs associated with the Chichester custody service had moved to Worthing, adding: ‘We are effectively left with - let’s say - the mortgage to pay on Chichester which is covered by credits or payments that we get by the Home Office.’
The total cost of the scheme over the 30 years, which includes building and running the facilities, is set to be £341m.