Today, we thought we would be settling in to a long analysis of local government funding. But the Autumn Statement was frankly breath-taking in its lack of policy detail – no real rabbits pulled out of hats or a gimmick to be seen.
While we were warned this may happen, this was not the budget we are used to seeing. Any substantial announcements were briefed in advance, including funding for housebuilding; but it was also missing policy detail that we were expecting, and there was very little for local government to get its teeth into.
There was some good news for local councils – the government has reconfirmed its commitment to devolution, with new deals set to go ahead. Increased national funding for productivity was positive, but there are no details as to how this money will be allocated and what it is likely to be spent on: devolution isn’t just about allocating funds to a region (appreciated though it is), but should be about transferring real autonomy and responsibility.
Most striking today though was the stark omission of any reference to health and social care spending. (Yes, we Ctrl + F-ed it). Local government, the NHS and a host of stakeholders have been stressing that the health and social care system is nearly at breaking point. Providers are already pulling out of the social care market as it becomes increasingly unsustainable, and the pressures falling on local authorities who have already seen their budgets slashed is increasing at an unprecedented rate. It won’t be long until start losing the battle. The chancellor’s decision to defer any major decisions is only going to entrench this problem.
Adding to cost pressures is the increase in the living wage. People need to be paid properly for the work that they are doing, and we welcome the increase in the living wage – but the impact on health and social care costs will be significant. According to the Chancellor today, a 30p per hour rise works out to over £500 a year for a full time worker. This will put a huge burden on local authorities, or more likely seriously limit the services they are able to provide. Living standards of workers should increase; but this should not be to the detriment of those most in need.
While ignoring the social care problem is a major worry to councils, the NHS should also be concerned. When social care is adequately provided, it reduces pressure on the NHS and other emergency services, not to mention the fact it improves quality of life for millions of people. By not making provision for this increase in cost, there is a substantial risk that situations escalate – and that this extra care will end up being provided for by the already overstretched health service.
While the health and social care crisis was worrying before, it is downright irresponsible to continue to ignore it.
Claire Porter is head of external affairs, and Claire Mansfield head of research, at the New Local Government Network.