High stakes

Today\’s news that Metronet, the consortium contracted to maintain and operate the London Underground\’s Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, is likely to enter administration can actually be seen as a curious type of success for the PPP. These contracts are not a one-way bet.

Public private partnerships for major public infrastructure projects have tended to look like one-way bets for the private sector. They charge the public sector for taking on \’risk\’, but everybody knows that the state will have to step in if problems threaten to destroy public goods: hospitals, schools, railway and road networks cannot be allowed to go to the wall as private businesses would if they became insolvent.

The fact that the PPP arbitrator has called their bluff, and refused to grant Metronet the mind-boggling £551 million that they were seeking to cover their overspend, shows that this bet is not the sure thing it must have once looked like. But whatever the short-term pain to Metronet\’s shareholders, it will ultimately be taxpayers who meet the cost of keeping these Underground lines afloat, and of the bizarrely money-gobbling, lawyer-ridden farce that the PPP has turned out to be.

An archaeology of advertising

Metronet, the PPP consortium struggling to stay solvent while it operates and upgrades London Underground\’s Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, doesn\’t have many fans.

But either Metronet, or one of their sub-contractors, seems to be running a rolling exhibition of antique advertising, which has been carefully left in place as posters are stripped back in the public spaces of Victoria Line stations. Towards the end of 2006, this exhibition hovered at Oxford Circus. Now – for a limited time only – it is at Warren Street.

The posters at Warren Street seem to date from around 1989 (on the basis of the release dates of Wilt and Ghostbusters 2), though one for Whitley\’s Shopping Centre could have been dated from the 1930s. They look incredibly antique: bright blocky colours, wordy captions, and none of the sly irony that we have come to expect over the past 20 years. The overall effect is as alien as the garish supplements about investment opportunities in former soviet republics that sometimes fall from the Sunday papers.

Normally, advertising on the underground is just unwelcome visual noise (now even clumsily imposed on the minimalist Jubilee Line extension escalators), but these posters are worth a view. So, hurry, hurry, the opportunity to enjoy these blasts from the past is strictly time-limited.

Within weeks, the posters will be gone, and Metronet will have begun to \’improve\’ Warren Street Tube, with its usual glaring striplights, bargain-basement tiles and tacky wipe-clean wall panels.