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The Spending Review has to be seen in context

Look back to 2010.

New Statesman
George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

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.