John Major speaks in Prague on Czech public-private partnerships

John Major and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

Public-private partnerships, which promote cooperation between the state and the private sector, have met with success worldwide. In the UK, for example, such projects have invited investments worth 70 billion Euros (2 trillion Czech crowns), and developing countries have also benefited from the model. On Wednesday a discussion took place in Prague on how public-private partnerships, or PPPs, could benefit the Czech Republic. The most prominent guest was former British Prime Minister Sir John Major, the man commonly regarded as pioneering the idea.

John Major and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
On Wednesday morning Sir John Major took the podium to deliver the keynote speech at this year's conference. The event, which was overseen by the leader of the Czech right-of-centre opposition Civic Democrats, Mirek Topolanek, came at a key point in the run up to the Czech elections and gave Topolanek a chance to discuss a major policy issue. Public-private partnerships have not always heralded great success in the Czech Republic. There has never existed the kind of legally stable environment necessary to support such plans, and the model is still very much in its infancy here. But, as PPPs are a proven method of limiting costs while providing more efficient services, many Czech organisations are now keen to use them. Legislation is now being negotiated within which PPP projects could operate more effectively, and the potential for them to become a significant part of Czech public services is now much greater. At a press conference following the main forum, John Major reiterated why he felt they were essential in the Czech Republic.

"There will never be enough money in the public sector from the taxpayer to provide all the new services and new physical infrastructure that the Czech Republic needs. It is therefore essential to bring in private capital as well. That will be important for competitiveness within the European Union and important for competitiveness beyond the European Union."

Indeed on a European scale, the Czech Republic has yet to benefit from PPPs to the extent to which other Central European countries, such as Poland or Slovakia, have. After the conference, Mirek Topolanek told me he thinks the country has a lot to learn from Sir John Major's extensive experience in the field:

"John Major started the first project and I think he has the greatest experience in this field. I think it was very important to hear about the threats or mistakes during this process"

John Major and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
And indeed the past use of public-private partnerships in the Czech Republic has been riddled with mistakes. It is hard to refer to PPPs here without remembering the huge failure of the D47 motorway in North Moravia, a project which came to a standstill amid rumours of corruption and incompetence, and the Internet for Schools scheme, which drew controversy from the start. So do PPPs still have potential? Mirek Topolanek believes that they do:

"We have a very bad example of the use PPP projects in our highway in North Moravia and I think it is necessary to persuade public people to understand the project and to believe that this project could improve public services. I think that the fields in which we could use these projects are very large, because we want to realise them in transportation and in traffic, in the building of new highways and so on. I think it is possible to use such a project in many other areas and I hope we will be able to realise this more than anybody is able to imagine"

Although there is still a long way to go before the Czech Republic can compete with its European neighbours in terms of the effective use of public-private partnerships, both the right-wing opposition, that hosted the conference, and the ruling Social Democrats do seem keen to learn from what has been achieved in the UK.