The Spending Review has to be seen in context

Look back to 2010.

There is a risk that the Chancellor’s Spending Review is seen in isolation, but to appreciate the potential effects of some of the latest austerity measures announced by George Osborne, you have to look back to 2010.

There is a ticking time bomb of public sector cuts that have yet to be implemented from when they were announced early in the Coalition’s life. The full impact of the austerity measures have yet to be felt by households in Britain. However, the cuts of £11.5billion announced in the latest Spending Review for 2015-16, in addition to those from 2010, will be felt with full force when they are eventually implemented. The protection of critical front-line services can no longer be guaranteed. No one knows yet what the impact the cuts will be and yet Chancellor’s scythe keeps slicing away.

There were few surprises when it came to Departmental Expenditure Limits (DEL). Though there were some sweeteners in there, such as the welcomed emphasis on capital spending to stimulate growth, in reality that increase in capital spending looks good only on paper. When taken along with the wide-spread cuts to departments and local government, the extra money is nothing more than shuffling the deckchairs around.

There will come a point where the Government can’t cut the DEL budget anymore and public services will suffer. Front-line services are already at breaking point. ACCA’s current research Developing strategic financial leadership highlights that directors of finance in local government feel confident that they have delivered all that was asked to date, but are less confident about the future and the next 10 years. There is a general lack of a long term strategy for public services.

Where there were positives in the Chancellor’s review was in the pooling of health and social care budgets for the elderly. This has been a long time coming and will allow greater flexibility and efficiency of service provision.

The Chancellor also took a step in the right direction with the annually managed expenditure (AME) budget, which totals £350 billion, over half of public expenditure. AME has for too long not been actively managed and controlled. The emphasis has been on ‘hands off’ management for too many years. So the cap is good move but with the caveat that limits and caps are notoriously broken. So perhaps with that in mind, the Chancellor took the safety measure of a wider role and powers for the Office of Budget Responsibility, in particular its trigger of an early warning signal and monitor expenditure. 

However, the Chancellor didn’t go far enough and missed further opportunities to take a more structural look at AME and review the drivers behind the budget headings and how they interrelate. The lack of a long term strategic review is evident. The cap is a short-term fix. There needs to be a longer term perspective that goes beyond the short term political cycle.

Other countries, such as the US and Australia, have long term fiscal strategies that encompass 50 years or more. Here in the UK, we seem wedded to the immediate future. There was no consideration as to whether the AME budgets should be devolved, exploration of the impact new policy initiatives would have on AME, or any focus on what the impact that further joint working by government departments might have.

There needs to be more emphasis on whole life costing – cradle to the grave, across all public spending, not just AME. Perhaps then we will get a clearer understanding of the true cost of what public expenditure should be, rather than have a demand-led welfare system.

It seemed unusual and illogical to makes cuts in the Treasury where financial leadership is needed most. Managing public expenditure needs more, not less expertise. While setting an example might seem like the right gesture, government needs stronger financial leadership at a time of on-going cuts and greater financial management.

All in all, the Chancellor made some positive movements to getting public expenditure under control, but the potential impact of back logged cuts from 2010 on top of some of these announcements today, as well as his reluctance to take a radical approach to tackling annual managed expenditure, outweigh those positives.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

ACCA Head of Public Sector

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR