Private Finance Projects and off-balance sheet debt - Economic Affairs Committee Contents

Letter and memorandum by John Laing

  On behalf of John Laing plc, it is my pleasure to respond to your call for evidence to support the Economic Affairs Committee's enquiry: "Private Finance Projects and off-balance sheet debt".

John Laing is a specialist owner, operator and manager of public sector assets in the UK and internationally. Our reputation is the product of our success in delivering 67 privately-financed infrastructure schemes for the public sector, ranging from the award-winning MoD HQ in London's Whitehall, to the ground-breaking Croydon Urban Regeneration Vehicle, as well as hospital, school and major road projects in the UK, Europe and North America. Our project development and management skills draw on our long heritage in infrastructure—the group was established over 160 years ago, and until 2001 was a leading international construction contractor.

  Our response to your call for evidence is attached. In summary, we strongly believe that the use of private finance in publicly procured infrastructure, whether through PFI or other forms of PPP, has delivered (and can continue to do so) substantial benefits to governments. It is not, of course, a one-size-fits-all solution, and improvements could be made in how it is used, but used appropriately, it can make a valuable contribution to supporting public sector infrastructure investment.

  We would be happy to supplement the attached written evidence if the Committee so requests.

Chief Executive

25 September 2009

1.  Question 1—How should the cost and benefits of Private Finance projects be assessed? What discount rate should be used in comparing Private Finance with conventional public procurement? Are current procurement procedures satisfactory? Is enough information disclosed on Private Finance projects fully to assess whether the taxpayer is getting value-for-money?

  1.1  Cost-benefit analysis for private finance projects should be evaluated holistically using a Value for Money (VfM) assessment. In its VfM guidance, HM Treasury defines value for money as "the optimum combination of whole-of-life costs and quality (or fitness for purpose) to meet the user's requirements".1 The very nature of Private Finance projects, whereby a consortium contracts with a procuring authority not only for design and construction but also for maintenance, operation and asset management of a facility, embeds this principle of whole-life costing. Similarly, quality to meet defined long-term end-user's requirements is a fundamental part of Private Finance projects, requiring ongoing active management to make this a success.

1.2  HM Treasury's guidance on VfM combines both a qualitiative and quantitative assessment, so that too much weight is not placed on comparative costs (PFI versus traditional procurement) which can only ever be approximate. Accurate cost-benefit comparisons between projects delivered through private finance and traditional procurement are hard to make because like-for-like information on traditional procurement is limited. The VfM Quantitative Assessment which HM Treasury provide in their guidance2 is based on assumed Optimism Bias (understatements in forecasts for capital expenditure and long-term maintenance in traditionally procured projects) which, although based on previous experience, cannot be regarded as definitive. The guidance emphasises the need for a combined approach, not placing too much reliance on the quantitative assessment, which seems entirely appropriate in the circumstances. The VfM assessment could be improved if more information were available on the cost of traditionally procured projects, including costs of procurement, construction and long-term maintenance, to match the extensive body of information on PFI projects. This information should not only be used to make the internal VfM assessment more accurate, but should also be made public to allow a more informed debate on the merits of PFI in the public arena.

  1.3  Caution must be shown when seeking to make comparisons between traditional and privately financed projects that are based on "brick for brick" pricing alone, since this disregards the fundamental differences in the scope of traditional and privately financed projects. Private finance allows a clearer focus on long-term outcomes for clients and communities, including non-monetary targets (such as educational outcomes within the Building Schools the Future Programme, or Health & Safety targets for some roads projects), that cannot be effectively incorporated into traditionally procured projects.

  1.4  A sensible measure for the discount rate used in comparing private finance with conventional public procurement is the public sector cost of funds plus a risk premium to recognise the differences between the two approaches. Independent reviews comparing the effectiveness of PFI and traditional procurement have consistently shown that traditional procurement compares very badly in terms of its failure to deliver capital works on time and the frequency of cost overruns (see 2.4 below). Under HM Treasury's VfM Quantitative Assessment, the risk premium is recognised by means of estimates for Optimism Bias in traditional procurement, and a single discount rate (3.5% real) is applied to all assessments.

  1.5  Current PFI procurement procedures have successfully delivered a large number of infrastructure projects, as illustrated by the substantial increase in UK infrastructure investment pre and post 1997, and the part played by PFI in that.3 Nevertheless, the process could benefit from the following improvements:

    — Procurement through the private finance route under the Competitive Dialogue process can sometimes be more costly than necessary. The costs borne by each bidder can represent a significant percentage of capital expenditure, including duplication of early stage costs (eg investigations and early design work). In part, we believe that this derives from a fear of criticism in public sector bodies, which leads them to be particularly risk-averse in the extent of detailed development at early stages of a bid. Far less scrutiny is applied to equivalent projects procured under framework or traditional procurement routes. Procuring authorities are well aware of this issue in PFI procurement, and have improved processes to some extent, although there is further to go.

    — Procurement through the private finance route can be a lengthy process. This in itself creates significant costs for both the public and private sector parties, in terms of direct staff resource and expenditure on external advisors. Sometimes, delays can occur because of insufficient pre-launch planning, or unrealistic expectations on cost or scope, which can lead to the need to seek re-approval for higher funding support during a procurement, causing delay. Comprehensive planning before launch is clearly critical, which is embedded in Government procedures, but still needs to be adhered to more closely.

    — More focus should be placed on developing new models for procurement that capture the potential for Public Private Partnerships to deliver multi-sector regeneration projects that are better aligned to the joined-up needs of communities (we have considered this in more detail in our response to Question 9, below).

    — Supporting the need for more "like for like" comparisons between privately and publicly financed projects, more information should be disclosed about the performance of both types of project, analysed by sector/type to facilitate its use (as noted in 1.2 and 1.3 above). For example, delivery dates, budget control, customer satisfaction, response and rectification, change control, lifecycle management and end user outcomes. Such information would help effectively communicate how VfM is achieved through these projects and would ensure that a more meaningful assessment and comparison with private finance is possible. As outlined above, all privately financed projects are subject to scrutiny on a regular basis, meaning that performance information is readily available for these projects. This is rarely communicated outside of industry press and successes are not widely acknowledged in the mainstream press.

2.  Question 2—How does the performance (eg, cost, delivery dates and service quality) of schools, hospitals, prisons, roads and other projects operated under private finance compare to those which were traditionally procured?

  2.1  All projects delivered using private finance are subject to regular performance scrutiny from both the Public Sector partner and senior lenders. This ensures that the infrastructure is operated to a high quality, failing which there are financial penalties to enforce this, and in extremis the contract can be terminated. These long-term incentives and drivers do not exist in traditional procurement. The private finance procurement route creates a clear focus of accountability for an infrastructure project in its entirety, which is not typically the case for traditionally procured projects that may involve multiple contracts and give little guarantee that the infrastructure will be maintained and serviced to a consistently high standard over the long-term.

2.2  Timely delivery of key facilities brings clear benefits to communities, as does the high quality operation and maintenance of facilities and technologies by specialist providers. Furthermore, clearly defined availability criteria assist the private sector in ensuring the maximum availability of highways, classrooms, hospital wards and fire stations. Each of these mechanisms are components of Private Finance projects. We see this evidence in many of our projects.

  2.3  On our M40 road PFI contract, innovation was required to meet performance expectations. Replacing a traditional surfacing treatment with an alternative preventative solution ensured that there was minimum disruption to motorists. Cost efficiencies were delivered, as well as a dramatic reduction in the environmental impact—as evidenced by an independent sustainability consultant that calculated a 94% CO2 saving, when comparing preservatives against a resurfacing application.

  2.4  The superior performance of PFI-procured projects is reflected within the findings of a number of independent assessments:

    — A 2001 NAO report4 found that 81% of of public sector managers reported at least satisfactory VfM, with 52% reporting excellent or good VfM.

    — A 2003 NAO report5 found that only 30% of major non-PFI construction projects were delivered on time and 27% on budget, compared with 76% of PFI projects delivered on time (and only 8% more than two months late) and with no cost overrun paid by the public sector. Further, a Mott McDonald "Review of Large Public Procurement in the UK" for HM Treasury in 2002 reported cost overruns on traditionally procured projects of up to 51% for building projects and 66% for engineering projects attributed to "the large number of risks excluded from the contractor's price at the award stage".

    — Significant delivery problems have materialised in some traditionally procured projects, with a number of high profile examples, such as the Scottish Parliament building (which was initially estimated to cost £109 million but ultimately cost the tax payer £430 million with a three year delay) and the Jubilee Line extension to the London Underground (major delays and cost overruns, contrasted with the on-time/on-budget delivery of the privately-financed Lewisham Extension to the Docklands Light Railway).

    — The 2003 HM Treasury paper "PFI: meeting the investment challenge" highlighted that a number of key projects procured traditionally had been delivered late and significantly over budget; (such as Guy's hospital, the Trident submarine project, and the top 25 MOD equipment projects at a total cost of over £4.5 billion), which could have necessitated cuts elsewhere in the public purse to balance the over-spend.

    — Guy's hospital in London was the last traditionally procured major hospital before the introduction of private finance. The hospital was due for completion at the end of 1992 however due to a number of problems was not completed till April 1997. The National Audit Office described the project as "one of the worst cases of overspending in recent NHS history" and the HM Treasury put the rise in cost of the project at £124 million to £160 million.

    — A 2006 survey6 on operational PFI projects by Partnerships UK found that 96% of public sector managers believed that operational performance was satisfactory or better, with 66% believing it good or very good.

    — A 2008 review of educational performance in PFI schools by KPMG7 indicated a statistically significant correlation between PFI school projects and improved educational outcomes.

3.  Question 3—Is there significant risk transfer to the private sector or is it more apparent than real?

  3.1  Yes, there is significant risk transfer to the private sector. John Laing have experienced this first hand with the termination of the National Physical Laboratory PFI contract in December 2004. The private sector partners, including John Laing as a project sponsor and (in that project) construction contractor, reported an overall loss in excess of £100 million.

3.2  The significance of risk transfer has been illustrated through a few high profile cases of private sector ventures going into administration, the most recent of which being the announcement that Newschools (Cornwall) Ltd had gone into administration in July of this year.

  3.3  In certain LIFT projects, we are assuming full risk on the development and construction of community primary care facilities that can then be utilised by Primary Care Trusts (PCT). The financial risk on residual value of these properties remains with the private sector should the PCT no longer have need for the facilities. This innovation gives PCTs significant flexibility in their care delivery models but requires a substantial transfer of risk to the private sector.

  3.4  The benefit to the public sector of transferring the risk to the private sector is that should a project encounter difficulties, the private sector contractor typically carries responsibility to remedy any significant problem, and if a facility is not completed or is not available for use by the public sector client, then the private sector partner will receive no payment.

  3.5  There are also a much larger number of lower profile instances where the private sector partner has had to bear the consequences of unforeseen circumstances; but has successfully managed the implications of these to safeguard the long-term sustainability of a project. The following are examples from our own portfolio:

    — M40 road project: to meet our maintenance obligations we undertook works to the Loudwater viaduct. As a result of our testing regime we identified that reinforcement of the parapets was failing, even though we had not anticipated this pre-existing condition and had made no allowance in our budget, we undertook the additional rectification works at a cost of circa £4 million, all without recourse to the taxpayer.

    — All our road projects (M40, A55, M6, A130) link payment to traffic volumes, We are required to take this risk on traffic for the 25 year project period. As we have seen over the last few years, changes in oil price (and its impact on the price of fuel) and performance of the economy have had a significant impact on peoples travel patterns, consequently all our roads projects are suffering from a significant drop in traffic and a related drop in our revenue.

  3.6  These examples not only illustrate that the transfer of risk is very real for privately financed projects, but also that such projects are actually highly adaptable to change; and able to manage change effectively to safeguard the long-term provision of the services.

4.  Question 4—How effective and costly has it been to monitor the private sector providers' performance and quality of service in Private Finance projects in comparison with traditional procurement?

  4.1  It should be recognised that for all private finance projects, the private sector partner is obliged to commit to high levels of scrutiny and to produce regular performance reports on a monthly basis as required by the senior lenders and the public sector. This covers service availability, end-user satisfaction, financial performance and any deductions. Such extensive information and objective analysis of the performance of traditionally procured projects is not available.

4.2  The performance monitoring is intensive and carries and administration cost. The more detailed the requirements the more expensive it is to provide them. Most organisations are becoming streamlined so they will achieve economies of scale for the reporting process.

  4.3  The information collected does allow measurements to be taken on performance levels and for problems to be identified and mitigated before they become material.

  4.4  The translation of identified problems into remedial actions is one of the particular strengths of private finance projects. Because of the holistic nature of the service requirements procured, public sector clients will have a single point of contact, increasing the effectiveness of privately procured projects, with whom all performance issues can be raised and dealt with. With projects procured using the traditional route, the composite elements that make up the "whole" of the project are often separate contracts, with no single partner taking overall responsibility for the long-term performance.

5.  Question 5—When the basis of a Private Finance contract needs to be altered post procurement because of changing client needs—for example, a bigger jail is required due to a larger than expected prison population—has this proved problematic compared to projects under traditional procurement? What has been the experience of PFI projects that have reverted to the public sector?

  5.1  PFI contracts have improved and evolved their variation process to make them more efficient for all parties involved. A process, contract and delivery are already in place. The interfaces are established and a working framework already exists. A best value approach will have been evaluated with the help of the SPV such that the Authority will have benefitted from the private sectors expertise on budget and programme control to keep the variation on track. Historically, some contractual variations have sometimes proved to be more challenging within projects delivered through the private finance route than those traditionally procured. This is because the holistic nature of private finance projects implies that most variations will create consequences for a number of other linked activities and processes, which shape the long-term performance of the project. Such variations must be planned carefully, to protect overall project performance. There are also significant legal costs associated with larger variations because of the complex nature of such contracts. The variation process within PFI contracts has been significantly improved in recent years, in recognition of these issues.

5.2  An example of a successful variation from John Laing's project portfolio is the addition of two wards (144 beds), a renal unit and medical school facilities to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. This was a result of the client's changing requirements, decided during construction of the new hospital. A variation process, as defined in the original PFI contract, was followed and construction on the additional facilities was able to start prior to handover of the original hospital. The same architectural and engineering design team and building contractor was used, which ensured both timely delivery and full integration of the additional facilities with the original hospital project. The additional facilities were completed on time. Since then the NHS Trust has instructed the Special Project Company to complete a further £12 million (capex) of variations, thereby demonstrating the strength of our partnership.

  5.3  It is important to recognise that whilst such changes can bring additional complexities over traditional procurement, the long-term success of a project can be enhanced by the level of scrutiny applied when planning and implementing change.

  5.4  At our Cleveland Tactical Training Centre project, an extension was built via a traditional procurement process which linked onto our PFI facility, it was procured in isolation of the SPV and ultimately delivered late, and over budget, and was not operational for over twelve months after completion due to confusion over the project management and ownership of a number of building quality issues. The preferred route for change of John Laing's public sector partner for this project is now via the PFI variation procedures route. Examples of this kind are rarely reported, because there is no process by which to do it for traditionally procured projects.

  5.5  Not all variations come at a cost, however. Variations can be banded in a PFI contract depending on their complexity and size, and so simple changes need not create expensive and laborious processes. On many occasions the initial outlay can be offset by savings in the maintenance budget; for example at one of John Laing's London hospitals we were able to offer value added lifecycle changes through the replacement of previous flooring with that offering improved performance. Not only was this flooring easier to install and replace, but it also provided for an extended lifespan, reducing the frequency with which the disruption to patients and staff during replacement need occur.

  5.6  By working hard to build effective partnerships and partnering behaviours between the public and private sector partners even complex variations can be managed efficiently. The police authority at our Cleveland Tactical Training Centre wished to make a £300k upgrade to their firearms range. We worked with the authority to accommodate a number of their new requirements at no additional cost. The client recognised the concessions made by the SPV and successfully used the variations process to fulfil their needs. This has been achieved because of the ethos of cooperation and trust that has developed between the Client and the service delivery teams, as has been generally acknowledged by Partnerships UK in their 2006 report.8

  5.7  In 2008, the NAO9 reported that 90% of contract managers are satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of work done to implement changes.

6.  Question 6—How should future payments by the Government under existing Private Finance contracts be recorded in public sector accounts? Is risk transfer an appropriate test? Should all such liabilities be included in the national debt? Should they be accounted for separately from government debt? How much does the public sector accounting treatment of capital and revenue aspects of projects matter?

  6.1  The public sector should apply the same accounting principles as the private sector does when accounting for future PFI payments. The wider adoption of International Accounting Standards, and the harmonisation of public sector accounting rules between the EU and the UK, should enhance comparability and transparency. To the extent that risk transfer is a criterion to assess accounting treatment, it should be applied.

6.2  The accounting treatment of PFI projects should not influence the procurement approach to be used by the public sector—this should be based on which can provide the best VfM.

  6.3  There is a tendency for misleading figures to be reported on PFI commitments, whereby aggregate commitments are quoted implying that this is equivalent to a debt already incurred by the public sector. In fact, a significant part of the commitment relates to the future cost of maintenance and the future cost of servicing debt in the project, which in traditionally procured projects will not be recognised until incurred.

7.  Question 7—Would public sector investment in the last decade have been lower without Private Finance? If so, by how much?

  7.1  In HM Treasury's 2008 report "Infrastructure procurement: delivering long-term value", the part played by PFI in delivering UK infrastructure is strongly emphasised, but kept in perspective. It states that "...   [although], the vast majority of investment in the UK's public services has been, and will continue to be, procured through conventional means ... the PFI programme continues to play a small but important plan in the Government's investment plans ...". PFI has delivered very large number (over 500) of large infrastructure projects since its inception, so there is no question that it has played an important role. It is difficult to assess hypothetically whether traditional procurement would have been able to deliver to the same extent, but the evidence of comparative performance of the latter suggest that it would not have done. It is clear that the past decade has witnessed the most active period of infrastructure investment within the UK since the period of mass reconstruction after the Second World War and privately financed projects have made a significant contribution to this activity.

7.2  For example, since May 1997 Department of Health data identifies that projects totalling £10,878 million have been procured through private finance. To give some examples, in its 2008 report10, HM Treasury noted that: in education, the total schools capital investment rose from less than £700 million in 1996-97 to £5.9 billion in 2007-08, and is projected to rise in 2010 to £8.2 billion; and in health in the same period 70 PFI (and 23 traditionally) procured hospital schemes were completed, and as at the time of the report another 27 PFI (and seven public capital) projects were under construction, modernising the NHS estate such that only 20% of the NHS estate is pre-1948 (down from 50% in 1997). This demonstrates the significant contribution made by PFI to investment in NHS infrastructure over the last decade.

  7.3  As illustrated by the independent findings comparing the performance of private and traditional projects cited in our response to Question 2, a major benefit that private finance has yielded for the public sector is cost certainty. This certainty has enabled it to plan effectively for long-term infrastructure renewal within the UK; and has enabled the UK Government to embark on a very large volume of projects.

8.  Question 8—How much impact has the financial crisis had on launching new Private Finance projects? Is the crisis likely to have a permanent effect on the Private Finance market?

  8.1  The impact of the financial crisis has been felt in two main respects: the impact on senior debt financing for projects (availability and cost), and the impact on Government's future spending plans (potential reductions in investment programmes).

8.2  Having said this, despite less than favourable market conditions, it is important to recognise that significant projects delivered through the private finance route are still closing during this challenging time. It is still possible to secure financial backing for high quality projects. For example, John Laing secured a major waste project with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority. This was achieved through extensive work between the Authority, John Laing, partners and funders; together with vital support from Government and backing from the Treasury's Infrastructure Finance Unit. The project is recognised as the largest municipal waste contract in Western Europe, with a total value to the Viridor Laing consortium of £3.8 billion. In addition, John Laing has also closed significant projects in the UK education and fire and rescue sectors, including the Barnsley Building Schools for the Future programme valued at over £250 Million and the North East Fire And Rescue Authority project (NEFRA), valued at £27 million.

  8.3  In response to financial market difficulties, HM Treasury established the Infrastructure Financing Unit ("IFU") in 2009, which has facilitated the closing of projects which might have otherwise suffered from funding shortfalls (for instance, the Greater Manchester Waste project referred to above).

  8.4  Conditions in the project financing markets are gradually easing, with debt pricing beginning to reduce, albeit still high by historical levels.

9.  Question 9—Are there realistic alternative roles for private finance than the current PFI-type private finance models? Should the UK be aiming for more diversity in private finance models? Would a national infrastructure bank (such as the proposed Dodd-Hagel NIB in the US) add any value in the UK? Should the public sector have a more hands-on role in financing and/or delivery?

  9.1  John Laing is at the forefront of developing new and innovative Public Private Partnership models with private finance at their core. For example, over the past year we have entered into the two of the UK's first Local Asset Backed Vehicles ("LABV") in the UK: a £450 million, 25 year joint venture with the London Borough of Croydon; and a 10 year joint venture with Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

9.2  Each of these innovative projects has been designed to effectively deliver local regeneration and re-provide key Public Sector infrastructure. They will achieve this through adopting a long-term partnership model, in which the Public Sector partner commits land and assets and John Laing provides equity and development expertise, to maximise the value of existing land assets through the planning process and subsequent developments, including commercial and residential uses.

  9.3  There are already alternatives to PFI in its traditional form. The "LIFT" programme created framework partnerships in primary healthcare and included the public sector as co-investor in the project companies; the "BSF" programme further capitalised on in the education sector. The LABV model has been developed as a direct response to the Public Sector's agenda to realise greater efficiency in the use of its assets. It enables the Public Sector partner to share risk with an equity-holding Private Sector partner and to draw upon the development expertise of this partner, incorporating an inherent flexibility within the project delivery approach to respond to changing market conditions and pursue the most mutually advantageous route to realising the agreed outcomes of each project.

  9.4  There is diversity in private finance models already. We have considerable experience in Europe and North America and bring this experience to the projects we bid. European procurement can sometimes be significantly shorter than UK procurement, lowering the procurement costs for all parties. Preferred Bidder periods can be very short (down to six weeks or less), and the entire procurement from OJEU launch to close, can be as short as 12 months. Some of these more positive aspects could be learnt from and incorporated in the UK model.

  9.5  We are not opposed to a NIB structure. We do think that its terms of reference would need to be very carefully considered to ensure that it becomes a valuable tool to facilitate privately financed infrastructure, but does not restrict the key drivers of PFI/PPP (for instance, the commercial drivers and incentives within these projects).

  9.6  In considering the roles most effectively performed by Public and Private Sectors within the realisation of infrastructure projects, John Laing believes that the Public Sector is always best placed to judge and define the strategic and social requirements within its infrastructure projects. The Private Sector can assist within the successful fulfilment of these requirements through its expertise in delivering efficiency, innovation and management of risk, enabling the delivery of high quality infrastructure and services. The key to the successful realisation of new Public Private Partnership models is achieving an effective combination of the key strengths of both the public and private sectors and ensuring these are effectively reflected in the roles they are obliged to perform.

10.  Question 10—Is there an optimal mix between conventional public procurement and Private Finance for public sector investment? What is the long run role of private finance in the delivery of infrastructure both in the UK and globally?

  10.1  From data and experience to date, there does not seem to be an optimal mix of private and public sector procurement. HM Treasury have consistently stated that PFI should only account for 10-15% of public sector investment, and it is clearly only appropriate as a tool in certain situations (large capital projects, with clearly defined future requirements, etc). It is very much dependent on the risk profile and project characteristics. We recommend that both models continue to be used so one acts as a benchmark for the other.

10.2  John Laing has significant experience in both overseas and UK markets for private finance projects; including projects in Germany, Poland, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Hungary, Australia, Canada and India. We have seen that many countries have looked to the UK and its experience of private finance as a solution for infrastructure renewal. Further, the Private Finance project skills that we have developed within the UK are hugely exportable. Whilst each country will look to adapt the model to suit its own respective requirements and market conditions, the UK will remain as the reference for innovation and further evolution of public private partnership models for many years to come.

REFERENCES1  Value for Money Assessment Guidance, HM Treasury, November 2006.

2  Quantitative Assessment User Guide, HM Treasury, March 2007.

3  Infrastructure Procurement: delivering long-term value, HM Treasury, March 2008.

4  Managing the Relationship to secure a successful partner in PFI projects, National Audit Office, 2001.

5  PFI: Construction Performance, National Audit Office, 2003.

6  Report on Operational PFI Projects, Partnership UK, 2006.

7  Investment in school facilities and PFI—do they play a role in educational outcomes? KPMG, 2008.

8  Report on Operational PFI Projects, Partnership UK, 2006.

9  Making changes in operational PFI projects, National Audit Office, 2008.

10  Infrastructure Procurement: delivering long-term value, HM Treasury, March 2008.

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