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Richards talks down tender for airport deal

No surprises in report: Bob Richards, former finance minister

The airport deal was the best Bermuda could hope for, the former finance minister and a prime mover behind the controversial contract has said.

Bob Richards said competitive bidding would not have worked for such a small project and the island’s inability to compensate unsuccessful competitors for the work they did on their bids would have doomed the process before it got off the ground.

Mr Richards added: “There had been no successful procurements for revenue-based, public-private partnership projects for airports of similar small size to Bermuda’s by way of a bidding process. None.”

He explained: “This ‘loss of pursuit costs for unsuccessful bidders’ means that in larger countries, governments would be required to refund unsuccessful bidders for some or all of the money they spent in making the detailed bid.

“The questionable financial condition of the Bermuda Government at the time would have made prospective bidders hesitant to spend a lot of money making a substantial bid in such circumstances.

“This is one of the reasons the bidding process for P3s for small countries had never worked.”

Mr Richards was speaking after the Progressive Labour Party government, which fought the deal in opposition, revealed the 25-page $187,000 review of the contract by international consultants LeighFisher.

He added: “In being so specific about the narrowness of the remit provided by the Government, LeighFisher has provided the reasons why the OBA government proceeded along the sole source route as opposed to the competitive bid process, which is the main bone of contention of the present government.”

Mr Richards said: “The findings of the report were in no way a surprise to me.”

David Burt, the Premier, said last month that the controversial deal to redevelop LF Wade International Airport would not be cancelled.

The LeighFisher report put the cost of scrapping the deal at more than $100 million.

Mr Richards said that much was made by Mr Burt about the “inability to cheaply terminate the deal” and the “lack of ability to do major tinkering”.

He said: “To state the obvious, a deal is a deal.”

Mr Richards added: “It should also be remembered that there is $284 million being loaned to this project, without a government guarantee. The deal stands on its own.

“If it depended on a government guarantee, the Government would have more flexibility to alter it, but this deal does not encumber the government balance sheet.”

He said the lenders must have “reasonable assurance” that their money would be repaid and that their investment would remain safe despite possible political changes.

Mr Richards explained: “Without that assurance, in a small market whose air traffic numbers have been in decline for 30 years, the risks would have been unacceptable and the deal would not have been able to be financed.”

The LeighFisher report said that “the majority of P3 deals in mature P3 markets are competitively procured by government agencies or sponsoring authorities for the purpose of securing the best value for money”.

But Mr Richards said Bermuda was not a mature market in terms of P3s.

He explained: “Since there have been no P3 deals similar in size to Bermuda’s, the ‘majority’ reference would not include the size of deals like Bermuda.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges.”

Mr Richards added: “Bermuda is not a mature P3 market. If we were, this deal would not have been controversial.”

Steve Nackan, president of developer Aecon, said the company would continue to “work collaboratively” on concerns raised by Mr Burt.

Mr Nackan added: “However, we are pleased to see that global independent P3 experts, LeighFisher, has found that the agreement is balanced and consistent with industry norms, that all key financial metrics are well within market range and that airport revenues are being appropriately managed and used strictly to pay for airport construction, operations and maintenance as well as the servicing of investments.

“With regard to the noted absence of a variation procedure, as LeighFisher finds, the inherent difficulty in privately financing an airport with fewer than 1 million passengers and a history of traffic decline resulted in a complex financing structure which inhibited changes to the agreement.

“In any event, variation procedures in P3 contracts only exist to enable small, technical improvements that are paid for by the client.”

Mr Nackan said: “There have now been numerous independent reviews of the agreement, by multiple independent global experts and by the well-respected members of the Blue Ribbon Panel and they have all concluded that the agreement is balanced and consistent with industry norms.

“The airport agreement provides a solid platform for us to continue making great progress in delivering a world-class airport Bermuda can be proud of — on time, on budget and without increasing Bermuda’s debt or impacting its credit rating.”

Denis Pitcher, an independent political commentator, said that the report did not provide a “compelling argument” that competition in the bidding process would have netted Bermuda a better deal.

Mr Pitcher added: “It does note that ‘the majority of P3 projects in mature P3 markets’ benefit from competition.

“However, we clearly aren’t a mature market for public-private partnerships.”

The LeighFisher report said that after talks with the Bermuda Airport Authority and airport operators Skyport, it had identified about $15 million in “enhancements for Bermuda and Bermudians” that could be negotiated.

Mr Pitcher said that the “incremental improvements” were not what the people were promised.

He explained: “Incrementally improving the OBA’s deal doesn’t suggest it was bad to begin with.”

Mr Pitcher said that the success of the America’s Cup and the review into the airport deal put against the “heavy rhetoric” that was used to oppose them by the now government “erodes some of the trust and confidence that the PLP puts Bermudians first versus party first”.

He added: “The PLP cannot keep riding on the OBA’s failures and kicking a frankly very dead horse. The PLP needs to recognise that they will be judged by their own successes.”

Mr Richards said that the America’s Cup and airport deal, as well as new hotels, were the legacy of OBA policies to boost the economy.

He added: “They have put many Bermudians back to work.”