In an era when bankers are often seen as cynics brazenly pursuing the main chance, Martin Blaiklock represented an older, more gentlemanly breed of financier. With great charm, but no small amount of rigour, he would weigh the costs of each project against the benefits it brought the taxpayer or customer. If the comparison passed muster, he was tireless in bringing the scheme to fruition. If not, he was an implacable obstacle in its path.
These virtues helped Blaiklock to establish a flourishing practice as a project financier, first at the UK merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson and latterly in the late 1980s at the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. In that period he worked on such successful projects as the financing of Hong Kong’s mass transit system and the construction of the Caracas metro.
But his independent spirit came under greater strain in the era of mass privatisation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, when political, commercial and financial interests were drawn to infrastructure deals. Blaiklock worked at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in the early 1990s, a time when it was dominated by French appointees and riven by infighting. Charged with running the bank’s power and utilities practice, he was presented with a controversial $800m scheme to complete a half-finished nuclear plant at Mochovce in Slovakia. The contractor was the state-owned utility Électricité de France, and the French government were mustard-keen.
Blaiklock was subjected to heavy-duty lobbying. “[EBRD president] Jacques de Larosière, unusually, became actively involved in the deal, as well as a senior French vice-president with overall advisory responsibility for energy matters,” he recalled. De Larosière wrote to the then prime minister of Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, promising the bank’s support before the deal had gone through its assessment process.
His bosses were not pleased when Blaiklock concluded that a gas-fired electricity plant at the site would be better value for money and resisted giving approval. The economic assessments he had commissioned were reworked to reach a different conclusion. Rather than saddle the Slovaks with what he felt was an unnecessarily costly plant, he quit.
Blaiklock’s strong sense of ethics perhaps stemmed from his upbringing. He was born in 1943 into a medical family in Northumberland. His father was one of three brothers who were all GPs and known collectively as the “A1 doctors” (after the road between London and Scotland, which crosses the county). His father, John, was popular with his patients; so much so that when he went blind they refused to desert him. Arrangements were made with local pharmacists to accept his idiosyncratically written scripts.
After attending Uppingham School in Rutland, Blaiklock studied chemistry at Oxford university, and then spent eight years working for Royal Dutch Shell in London. Concluding that petrochemicals were not for him, he took an MBA at Manchester Business School and went into banking. In 1981, he married Lesley Shrigley Jones, a cellist. They had two children, Matthew and Marta.
On leaving the EBRD in 1995, Blaiklock settled into a new career as an independent consultant on project finance. He taught courses on the subject, latterly at Surrey university, and wrote a book on infrastructure. He continued to follow the utility world closely and became a fierce critic of the financial engineers who clustered around Britain’s regulated power and water industries, especially after the early 2000s.
Blaiklock was particularly unimpressed by industry regulators, which allowed financiers to load monopoly utilities with debt and extract big dividends from them, while doing little to help customers. This selfish extraction of value, he felt, would build an unsustainable pile of borrowing that future generations would have to pay off.
He was also an opponent of projects such as the £4.2bn “super sewer” under the river Thames, financed by taxing existing water customers in advance of delivery. He likened it to Londoners “being forced to pay for a meal at a restaurant before the restaurant [had] been built, much less served any food”.
Initially seen as eccentric, Blaiklock’s views on privatisation became increasingly influential. He confessed to mixed feelings when his opinions were echoed by leading figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in recent years.
He loved sport and his talents achieved international recognition. Living in South America in the 1970s, he was capped by Venezuela for both its international hockey and cricket sides.
Jonathan Ford and Gill Plimmer
Get alerts on Martin Blaiklock when a new story is published