Tory spending pledges don’t reflect stress on public services


By Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO

Last week’s results sent the country into a bit of a tailspin. While many pollsters were expecting a Conservative majority, the overwhelming scale of the victory was what put everyone onto their heels.

The prime minister’s staggering victory gives him a fairly unshakable mandate to act with authority, and push his policy agenda through the Commons with relative ease. But what will this mean for local government, which the now-ruling party’s manifesto described as ‘the bedrock of our democracy’?

Frustratingly, supporting local communities formed a relatively small part of the Conservative manifesto. It referenced the "substantial funding increase” granted in September’s Spending Round, but little else.

While the short term boost awarded to public services earlier this year was certainly welcome, it did little to put future funding on a sustainable footing for the long term. It was also announced without the OBR’s fiscal forecasts and commentary, making it difficult to evaluate the commitments that were made within a proper fiscal context.

The simple fact is that the Spending Round, while welcome, was not nearly enough. And the party’s spending pledges to date do not reflect the current stress on public services. For example, the proposed £5bn in social care funding is just another a short-term package that fails to address the care crisis and limits councils’ ability to adequately plan for the long-term.

One of the areas the manifesto did touch on however, was devolution. The Conservative party has pledged themselves to an agenda in which “the days of Whitehall knows best are over.” I agree wholeheartedly that local government could indeed be the means to rebuild the recent loss of trust and confidence in the political system.

But despite similar promises having been made before, we still have the most centralised state in the developed world. I passionately believe that accountability for the local state would reinforce trust and confidence in a city or county’s priorities to promote business, develop skills, build homes, improve health and build the infrastructure that’s needed.

For example, if the NHS estates were devolved to local government, we could see massive acceleration in health and care integration, not to mention the construction of hundreds of thousands more homes. While not terribly headline-grabbing, reform of this kind would be more meaningful in the long-term than the short-term fixes and injections of cash that have recently dominated public policy.

I for one will be looking to the Queen’s Speech and the promised English Devolution White Paper for further detail on the practical action that will see these pledges delivered. Bold and courageous action is required from a bold and courageous government. Only time will tell if the victors will live up to this expectation.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

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