What does austerity mean?
“What is austerity?” was one of the most common Google searches during the televised leaders’ debate during the general election campaign in May.
To many, public finances appear as a stream of disconnected data, huge numbers and percentages trotted out during budgets and spending reviews that seem as alien and remote as NASDAQ stock prices or test cricket batting averages.
But every digit that changes in the Departmental Expenditure columns of the Treasury statement has real public services, real people and real communities attached to it.
Today’s Financial Times provides a timely focus on the impact on local government services of £18bn of cuts since 2010. And it makes for disturbing reading.
Among its main findings are:
- A seven-fold increase in the number of children forced to stay in bed and breakfasts or shared hostels for over six weeks (the legal limit)
- 150,000 pensioners – who five years ago would have received help at home with washing and dressing – no longer qualifying for help, as councils are forced to tighten eligibility criteria (a 28 per cent cut)
- Children’s social work departments spending £600 less per child now than four years ago
- An 81 per cent cut in the number of older people receiving meals on wheels since 2005
- A 91 per cent reduction in local authorities conducting workplace health and safety visits
- Almost 90,000 more kids on the Children in Need register (a 12.5 per cent increase)
This is shameful stuff.
The glib rhetoric of the government and its cheerleaders in the right wing press would have you believe that the 37 per cut in local government funding has been managed through sharing back office functions and culling bureaucrats. But the truth is that core services, including statutory responsibilities for children, older people and the disabled, are at breaking point.
The FT reports that a 4 per cent real terms increase in spending on children’s services has been outstripped by a 13 per cent increase for demand. There has been an increase of a quarter in the number of children subject to formal protection measures, while workforce numbers have remained static and, with morale at rock bottom, staff turnover has doubled to 17 per cent.
This troubling picture is borne out, in more detail, by UNISON’s austerity audit published in May of this year. This too shows the damage inflicted on local communities. Across England, since 2010, we have seen the closure of:
- 578 children’s centres
- 467 libraries
- 361 police stations
- 33 fire stations
And what of the culling of the bureaucrats? Well, this has included 4,430 police and community support officers , 5,000 library staff, 1,500 trading standards officers, 4,668 fire fighters and 2,000 youth workers.
That the government seem so blasé about this is, of course, a matter of its own political priorities. But also it highlights a systemic failure of the Department for Communities and Local Government to map and monitor the impacts of spending cuts. A damning report from the National Audit Office warned that government ministers did not fully understand the implications of their actions and were making irresponsible decisions, prompting Sir Amyas Morse, Auditor General to state:
“If you’re going to do radical surgery it would be nice if you knew where the heart was. You’re slightly more likely not to stick a knife in it by mistake”.
None of this is surprising, given the brutal nature of cuts to local government funding under David Cameron’s leadership. Figures released today from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) show that real terms funding has been cut by 32 per cent per head since 2009/10. Over the last year alone, every part of the country other than the South East has seen significant cuts to council budgets, with the biggest hits in the North East and Yorkshire and Humberside, putting the government’s “Northern powerhouse” talk in a bit of perspective.
What does this mean for the future of local services?
Quoted in the FT, John Jackson, speaking on behalf of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services spoke about the short-term:
“Local government this year has to make savings of 9 per cent. That’s not coming from overheads. Most of that will have come from reducing the resources available for public services”.
Yet in a summer budget described by the FT as “risky and provocative”, the Chancellor indicated more pain to come. Spending on public services is set to fall in real terms by £11bn or 3.2 per cent from 2015/16 to 2019/20. However, with spending on health, education, overseas aid and defence largely “protected”, other departments, including local government, will be faced with cuts of £19bn or 12.5 per cent over this period.
In their Future Funding Outlook Report, the Local Government Association predicts double digit funding cuts for at least the next two years, leaving a funding gap of almost £10bn by the end of the decade. With adult care, children’s service and waste taking up increasing slices of the budget, other services are likely to face cuts of 35 per cent in cash terms.
More big numbers. More cuts to services. More people like those highlighted in today’s FT. Danielle Prescott, the teaching assistant stuck in a b’n’b for almost 8 weeks with her two kids, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with five other families or Luke Davey, relying on his 74 year old mum to pick up the pieces after his cerebral palsy care package was cut in half.
While the government talks up our growing economy, a social recession lies in the wake of five years of punitive austerity. Real people, real communities, real damage.