Austerity is recreating Disraeli’s 'two nations'

New research shows the cuts are biting deepest in the poorest areas in the north and Scotland, with worse to come.

The cuts continue unabated. As we approach the fourth austerity settlement for local government next month, a new interim report for JRF, from a team at Glasgow and Heriot Watt Universities, analyses the pattern of public spending cuts for England in 2013/14 and offers the first analysis of budget cuts in Scotland. At the same time, a new Audit Commission report confirms that councils serving the most deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending since 2010/11. In December, another report from LSE will look at the impact of the cuts in London boroughs.

The cuts are biting deep (spending in England is set to fall by nearly 30% from 2008-2015 and by 24% in Scotland). Cuts in spending power are systematically greater in more deprived local authorities than in more affluent ones, with a difference of about £100 per head in both England and Scotland. The north-south divide in England is £69 per head. A major reason for these discrepancies is the scrapping of many specific grants which predominantly went to the more deprived authorities. As a consequence, the worst effects of austerity are being felt by those councils which are home to the largest concentrations of poorer people.

Sadly, the bad news does not end there. This most recent study shows that, to date, local authorities of all kinds had largely been successful in directing cuts towards 'efficiencies' - that is, cutting back-room jobs and other savings, in order to make the LA machine leaner and meaner. But that changed in in 2013/14 when more and more cuts were carried out by 'retrenchment' - namely reductions of various kinds on front-line services themselves. What’s more, this trend is set to intensify further in 2014/15. In the three case-study authorities covered in the report, services already affected in these ways include: services for children and young people, arts and culture activities, libraries, leisure centres, street warden and street cleaning services, and children's centres.

The case study local authorities are trying hard to protect the most vulnerable populations from the impacts of these cuts, and there is evidence that 'pro-rich' services (such as adult education or museums and galleries) have been subjected to severer cuts than 'pro-poor' services (like children’s social care, Citizens Advice and services for homeless people). Despite these efforts, the researchers conclude that the cumulative effect of all the cuts will still fall hardest on the poor, who lack the funds to buy replacement services.

Is there any good news? The study does highlight the considerable ingenuity used by the case-study authorities to find creative ways of managing the budget gaps they face. But in the meantime, austerity is hitting deprived communities hardest. The way that this is deepening the north-south divide is also clear. Unless we can somehow muster the national will to correct or mitigate these unacceptable divergences, we will continue to reinforce fatal divisions in our society. A society in many ways as divided as that portrayed, so many years ago, in Sybil, or The Two Nations. Disraeli must be turning in his grave.

John Low is a policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Local authority cuts in the north have been £69 per head deeper in the north than in the south. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Low is a policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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