“Sticking plaster won’t save our services now”

“Britain’s fabric is fraying. It’s not just the occasional crisis: schools that can’t afford a five-day week, prisons getting emergency funding because officer cuts have left jails unsafe, a privatised probation service that isn’t supervising ex-criminals. The services we take for granted have been pared so deeply that many are unravelling. The danger signals are flashing everywhere.

Local authorities have lost three quarters of their central government funding since 2010. They are cutting and selling off wherever possible: parks, libraries, youth services. The mainly Tory-run councils in the County Councils Network warned last year that their members were facing a “black hole” and were heading for “truly unpalatable” cuts to key services, including children’s centres, road repairs, elderly care, and rubbish collection.

The chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, a think tank, says councils are already on life support. Yet they face their biggest fall in funding next year. Volunteers are already running some libraries and parks. Councils will have to cut further; Theresa May’s new stronger towns fund is far too small to make a difference.

The criminal justice system has been stretched beyond reliability. The number of recorded crimes being prosecuted is falling and runs at just 8.2 per cent, as funding cuts bite, evidence isn’t scrutinised, courts close and neither defence nor prosecution teams have adequate resources or time. The chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee says “we are facing a crisis within our justice system, we are starting to see it crumble around us”.

In health, waiting times at A&E have hit their worst level in 15 years; in some surgeries the wait for a GP appointment can be weeks; and this week public satisfaction with the NHS fell to its lowest for more than a decade, at 53 per cent, down from 70 per cent in 2010. Britain’s spending watchdog, Sir Amyas Morse, departed from his usual role as a tenacious critic of government waste to warn us, bluntly, that May’s recent boost for the NHS is nothing like enough. An ageing population will need higher spending. The falling budgets for social care are “unsustainable”.

The news in education this week was that 15 Birmingham primary schools will close at lunchtime on Fridays because they can’t afford to stay open. It’s the most vivid recent example of the slashing of budgets per pupil by almost 10 per cent, in real terms, since 2010. Sixth forms have lost a quarter of their funding. Schools have reduced teaching hours, cut A-level courses in maths, science, languages, sacked librarians, school nurses, mental health and support staff, and cut back on music, art, drama and sport.

When this process began in 2010 I backed it. Like many people, I had come across enough unhelpful, incompetent jobsworths to know the state was wasting money. As a Labour supporter I’d written at the end of the Brown years warning that Labour was destroying its case for high public spending by squandering much of it.

Privately, many in the system agreed. One chief executive of a Labour council told me he’d been relieved to get rid of half his staff in the first couple of years; it had cleared out the pointless and lazy, and forced everyone to focus on what mattered and what worked. Other chief executives agreed cheerfully that they too had been “p***ing money up against the wall”.

But we are years past that point. We have moved beyond cutting fat, or transformation through efficiencies. Instead we are shrivelling the web of hopes, expectations and responsibilities that connect us all, making lives meaner and more limited, leaving streets dirtier, public spaces outside the prosperous southeast visibly neglected.

So many cuts are to the fabric that knitted people together or gave them purpose. The disappearance of day centres for the disabled, lunch clubs for the elderly or sport and social clubs for the young is easy to shrug off for the unaffected. But the consequences are often brutal for those who lose them, isolating people and leaving them with the cold message that unless you can pay, nobody cares. The hope that volunteers and charities could fill all the state’s gaps has evaporated. They haven’t and they don’t. Is this how we want Britain to be, and if not, where does this end?

Austerity was never meant to be lengthy, just a few tough years to drive reform. It was intended to be over by 2017, when a thriving economy would float us off the rocks, but events did not go to George Osborne’s plan. The economy is not about to rescue us now, either. All forms of Brexit are going to slow our growth.

Which leaves us with three choices. We could accept the decay of services, and decide to live in a crueller, more divided, more fearful country. If we didn’t want that, we could back a party that planned higher taxes to fund them — Britain’s tax burden is currently 34 per cent, three quarters of the French, Belgian and Danish rates.

Alternatively, Philip Hammond could seize the chance to start reversing this policy in his spring statement next week. In America many Republicans and Democrats, for different reasons, have begun to treat deficits with insouciance, after years of obsessing over them. What matters is whether governments can afford the interest on the debt. Rates are low. Britain desperately needs investment in its people and their futures. The cautious Hammond should open the financial taps.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)

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