The Lost Billions

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: About 150 JPIMedia titles including i, The Yorkshire Post, The Scotsman, Belfast News Letter, Sheffield Star, Portsmouth News, Lancashire Post, Sunderland Echo and Edinburgh Evening News.

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 15/10/2019

Credit: John Blow, Philip Bradfield, Isabella Cipirska, Tom Cotterill, Michael Holmes, Anna Khoo, Dean Kirby, Joel Lamy, Paul Lynch, Chris McCall, Claire Wilde

Project description:

In The Lost Billions, JPIMedia Investigations uncovered the alarming rise in cost of the UK’s Private Finance Initiative – a controversial method of funding public sector infrastructure projects through long-term deals with the private sector. 

We revealed it is now set to cost the UK taxpayer £5 billion more than expected, while some buildings costing millions each year are simply lying empty.

This collaborative investigation ran across some 100 JPIMedia titles, including the national newspaper i, as well as major regional and local newspapers including The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post.

Impact reached:

The Private Finance Initiative sees private companies build and run hospitals, schools, roads or other projects for a set term (usually 25 years but sometimes longer), with public sector bodies paying an annual fee. At the end of the deal, ownership of the building usually passes to the public authority.

While PFI has now been scrapped for new infrastructure schemes, some 700 existing contracts remain in place, with the last repayments set to end in 2050.

Our investigation revealed:

  • The total lifetime cost of these 700 PFI contracts is now set to be £5bn higher than had been expected when the agreements were first signed, with the taxpayer picking up the bill;

  • Some PFI-financed buildings have been mothballed while expensive payments continue;

  • Private firms are charging the public sector a high price to make changes to PFI buildings, such as a school billed more than £25,000 for three parasols.

The investigation made the front page of the i newspaper, with its extensive coverage running across three days. Regional and local versions of the investigation, highlighting rip-off contracts in different parts of the UK, ran in more than 100 local and regional titles across the JPIMedia stable – many making their front pages.

The Lost Billions put the spending of hundreds of health bodies, police forces, councils and Government departments under the spotlight, asking difficult questions of today’s decision-makers as well as those who originally signed up to the contracts.

The investigation prompted a public discussion of how the UK can rid itself of the expensive legacy of old PFI contracts, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell ending up in a Twitter spat with the Conservatives over who was to blame for the situation and how best to rectify it.

Techniques/technologies used:

We lodged hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, one to each public body holding a PFI contract.

We combined the responses with open data published on the deals to create a huge database ready for interrogation.

We took into account issues such as inflation to make sure we were making fair comparisons between the expected costs back when the deals were signed and today’s expected costs.

When we came to present our story, we used a ‘scrollytelling’ digital tool developed in-house by JPIMedia called Mooding to showcase our long-read version of the investigation. This incorporates interactive elements such as click-through timelines and polls to draw the reader in.

This long-read ran across all JPIMedia sites (more than 100 in total), to supplement our coverage of the investigation.

What was the hardest part of this project?

JPIMedia Investigations is a team of about 10 reporters based in JPIMedia newsrooms across the UK, who team up on a regular basis to put together in-depth investigations on matters of public interest. Working in different offices all across the UK was not easy, so communication between team members (and editors) was hugely important. This was conducted mainly through group messaging systems and conference calls.

The sheer size of the batch Freedom of Information request posed significant challenges and represented a major investment of time. Each authority responded to the request in different ways (despite our best efforts to encourage responses in a standardised format) so standardising the results ahead of analysis was also time-consuming and difficult.

To tell this story well, we also had to explain complex systems of public-private finance in simple terms, which was a challenge. 

What can others learn from this project?

At a time of ever-tighter budgets, this project shows the benefit of newsrooms working together and pooling resources to run in-depth investigations. 

It demonstrates that systematic use of Freedom of Information laws to submit batch requests can result in powerful journalism. It also shows the importance of using FoI laws in a responsible manner, by using any and all open data that is available before turning to them. 

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