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

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution