Three-quarters of all new hospitals are built through PFI - so why is it that the public sector's payback costs are clouded in secrecy? John Mair battles for exposure

Norwich will have a spanking new hospital next September, three months early, 953 beds and a medical school to boot. It all seems so much better than the higgledy-piggledy town centre hospital it is replacing.

Norfolk and Norwich 2 was one of the first private finance initiative hospitals to be approved - built by the private sector and then 'rented' to the NHS for a period of 60 years. PFI is all the rage; three-quarters of all new hospitals are being built that way. The health secretary says it is 'the only game in town', but so far nobody is quite sure how much it is all going to cost. It is built by a private sector consortium but the public sector client repays an annual sum over the period to cover both capital and current costs.

BBC East's Matter of Fact programme tried to find out the size and shape of the payback. We managed to get some clues but by no means the whole picture. I rang the hospital in July and asked for a copy of the business plan. I was shunted off to the Norfolk local studies library where a copy was kept.

They had never heard of it. Nobody, it seemed, had ever requested it. But it was on their computer files.

A pleasant afternoon followed with bound folders containing all that was in the public domain about the Norfolk and Norwich 2 PFI. Each folder was marked as being the property of the trust and not to be photocopied. And each was incomplete.

In order for a PFI case to be approved, the Treasury has to be convinced that it represents better value for money than building the hospital the conventional public finance way. It had made its case. But you would be hard pushed to work that out from the documents I saw.

Wherever the private and public sector costs were put side by side, the private sector costs were omitted and marked 'commercial in confidence'. Comparisons of any sort were impossible. So back to the hospital.

They had increased the number of beds in the new hospital from 701 to 953. That had meant going back to the Treasury with 'the supplementary business case' to prove this was value for money. Surely this would be in the public domain? It wasn't, despite the fact that the private consortium was going ahead and building the extra beds.

We went to interview the chief executive, Malcolm Stamp, and set up a long filmed session on the pros and cons of PFI. I asked: 'How much will it cost?' To my surprise, he asked for the filming to stop while he consulted the director of finance who was overseeing the interview from off camera.He did not manage to shed much light on the matter. So I offered them the published figure of£22.8m repayment per year. They clutched at that straw, readily.

But Mr Stamp was able to point to the numerous advantages of the scheme: the quickness of build, the efficiency, the extra size, the flexibility and, above all, the fact that the trust could get on with medicine instead of looking after buildings.

Then I asked again exactly what the cost might be.

He told me: 'We know exactly what it is going to cost.' So I asked for the figure. Once again, darkness. Mr Stamp asked his finance director to 'go and add it up'. Even then there was no indication of a true revised annual repayment figure. That came after the filmed interview was finished when he popped his head round the door and said the sums had been done; the new figure was£22.04m a year (£1.3bn over the 60-year term of the project).

During the interview Mr Stamp revealed the true total costs - all repayments to the consortium - to be£1.6bn. The search for a true figure was getting interesting. Perhaps the BBC could see the supplementary business case? That was promised to be in the public library 'next week'.

We pursued the supplementary business case and even offered to pay for a copy. We got it seven weeks after we first asked for it.

The hospital trust had twice given evidence to the House of Commons health select committee and had been asked to submit extra written evidence.

Would the nugget be there? It was. Hidden in all the tables a repayment figure of£36m a year over 60 years was declared: a total of close to£2bn in repayments for a hospital which will have cost£240m to build. But the trust will not own the hospital. Ownership will stay with the consortium that built and financed it. It has to honour its contract in terms of services, but if it wishes to sell it there is not much to stop it.

Secrecy seems to go with the PFI territory. You name it and they can PFI it - schools, colleges, computers and even flood defences. It can bring bigger and better buildings than we could otherwise afford. But it could also prove an albatross around the neck of future generations. And if it is the only game in town, surely the players and spectators have the right to know the entrance fee?