Rishi Sunak’s spending review will cost lives and cause yet more cuts in local services. But he still found the cash for a red wall bung.
If there were any lessons about spending priorities during the pandemic it is that investing in public health services saves lives, but Sunak offered nothing. The core public health grant – this year at £2.4bn – has been slashed by a fifth in five years. The hollowing out of this vital public service has been a central factor in the UK having a Covid-related death rate worse than the US and Brazil and five times that of Germany.
Covid-19 suppression and preparing for future pandemics will remain a core task, and the failure to give councils the resources to do the job will drive up the death toll. When billions can be found for the NHS it almost feels like a calculated insult. No wonder a despairing Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, described Sunak’s refusal to increase the public health grant as “completely incomprehensible”.
Social care funding was increased by a derisory £300m. So far, more than 18,000 people have died in care homes with Covid-19. Perhaps social care providers should top up their funds by investing in Serco. Its part in the failing test-and-trace system has seen its underlying profits increase to around £165m and shares jump 18%. Or perhaps they could pick up a PPE contract in Matt Hancock’s local pub.
But there were some winners: Conservative MPs. Sunak found nearly £5bn for a “levelling up” slush fund, to be run from Westminster and doled out in lumps of up to £20m where bids are backed by the local MP. Projects need to be delivered during this parliament, ie by the next election. It is a shameless example of what the Americans graphically call “pork barrel politics” – local politicians bringing home the pork from federal funds to curry favour with local electors and businesses.
They have had a dry run with the £3.6bn towns fund, with Tory seats and targets being the big beneficiaries. The Commons public accounts committee could start drafting its inevitable inquiry report now on how the levelling up fund was abused to prop up Tory seats in the red wall.
Sunak’s pay freeze for most local government staff, teachers, police and many more punishes frontline workers who have put themselves at risk to protect the public from Covid-19 and keep services going. It is shameful that council staff who have been going into people’s homes to provide care are going to be rewarded with a real terms pay cut.
Sunak claimed in his speech that public sector workers had not lost jobs because of the pandemic. But thanks to his imposition of further austerity on local government, significant numbers of council staff can expect to join the ranks of the unemployed in the coming months.
Counties in England are already warning of cuts to statutory services. Hull city council fears being overwhelmed by Covid costs, while Leeds and Nottingham are planning hundreds of redundancies. And Croydon’s financial implosion shows the perils of pushing local authorities to take ever greater risks to generate income and improve their area.
Ministers have reneged on their promise early on in the pandemic to meet all councils’ costs. Levelling up should mean improving the life chances and living conditions of the most deprived communities, not cutting their services again.
Not even 60,000 deaths can teach this government the value of investing in public services, the limits of central control or the lethal consequences of a desperately unequal society.
And compared with the budgets to come, this was supposed to be the good news.
Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst