A brave new world?

4 Sep 2019

Policy area: Budget, Sustainability, Planning, Brexit

It was billed as an election splurge - a Spending Review to please the voters. Nothing wrong with a bit of that, and not a person in the country would complain about extra money being found for our schools, hospitals and the police. Austerity has taken its toll on most public services and the nation’s headteachers, NHS trust CEOs and Chief Constables deserve some relief.

As well as being on the cusp of an election, however, we are also on the cusp of Brexit, potentially with no deal. For some, this is seen as a threat, for others an opportunity for the UK to open up new markets and restate its place as a truly global trading nation, narrowing regional disparities as it goes.

One yardstick for judging the Spending Review was therefore: did it support this vision? If so, the week got off to a bad start with the announcement that HS2 is to be delayed by five years and is £26bn over budget. Much was also made of the PM’s support for the Northern Powerhouse during the summer, but our members want more than warm words about better east/west rail connections, they want funding and action. The promise was reiterated in the Spending Review, and continued funding to work up plans, but the detail was again left for a later date.

There was generally a lot of good words on infrastructure spending “first priority”, “a decade of renewal”, “we will build and invest in every region and country of the UK”. However, the capital spending budget only increased by £1.7bn, less than the Brexit budget. The environment featured, but is an additional £30m of current spending for supporting biodiversity and £30m for clean air enough?

A can perpetually kicked-down the road is social care funding. More spending on it, along with cuts in Government grant, have left local government finance in a perilous state. More funding for councils, and a long-term solution to social care, was therefore a priority we wanted to see supported in the Spending Review for a variety of reasons. Significant short-term funding was given, but a long-term solution remains a job to be done.

The most severe cuts in local government have taken place in planning departments, leaving many under-resourced. How can we expect the nation’s planners to devote their time to strategic planning, reshaping our high streets for example, or planning our new transport hubs, when many haven’t got the resource to deal with the day-to-day?

On housing, hardly a peep, and there are so many good reasons why Government should have found more funding for housing, particularly social housing. To resolve chronic undersupply and affordability issues. To help support the Government’s target to deliver 300,000 homes a year. The counter-cyclical effects of building rental homes. The impact that good homes in the right places have on peoples’ productivity.

Of course, there was a couple of billion for Brexit planning, but much of that is devoted to the immediate snags that a 'no deal' will create, rather than supporting the nation’s long-term future. To boost trade, an additional £60m for the “Great” campaign and 1,000 more diplomatic posts.

In truth, however, the Spending Review offered little for infrastructure investment, adult skills, R&D, long-term solutions to local government finances and housing. Perhaps it was too much to expect that a one-year review would live up to the Government’s long-term vision. This was a short-term review for a short-term outlook. But if we are to have confidence in the brave new world that many current Ministers believe in, today was a missed opportunity to show how spending is supporting that.