The politics behind Philip Hammond’s budget yesterday are depressingly transparent. Potholes and struggling school budgets are two of the things most likely to be bothering the sort of 30- and 40-something suburban voters who unexpectedly swung to Labour in 2017. Setting aside money to patch up the roads and buy “a few little extras” for schools looks a lot like an attempt to communicate that, for those swing voters at least, austerity is drawing to an end. For the bits of the crumbling public realm they are most likely to encounter – on their morning commute; in a panicked begging letter from their kid’s school – help is on the way.
I’m not convinced it’ll work. For one thing the sums on offer are hilariously small: the £400m set aside for schools is a fraction of the £2.7bn a year government has just blown on a tax cut that largely benefits higher earners (another signal that austerity is over, just so long as you were never really affected by it in the first place). That works out to just £10,000 per primary school, and £50,000 per secondary: at a time when schools are closing on Friday afternoons because they’re so short on cash, throwing them a few pennies for “little extras” and expecting them to be grateful looks tone deaf.
There’s another reason I’m not persuaded those middle England swing voters will believe the good times are about to roll – a side-effect of austerity that did not feature in Hammond’s speech.
During the last Tory government, an encampment of up to 200 homeless people appeared in the subways near London’s Waterloo station. Like the Hoovervilles that mushroomed in American cities during the Great Depression, Cardboard City was a physical manifestation of the damage wrought by failed economic policies.
The last Labour government, for all its many failures, pretty much fixed this. By the mid 2000s, thanks to initiatives such as the Rough Sleeping Unit, the number of people sleeping on Britain’s streets had fallen by almost three-quarters. A terrible and complicated social problem had been largely solved.
But now it’s back. On the streets any major city, and many less major ones, you will find occupied sleeping bags and tents; the number of people sleeping rough has almost tripled since 2010. The reasons for this are complex: the availability and cost of housing is a factor, but so are the growth of the private rental sector, the under-regulation of landlords, and the impact of welfare reforms such as Universal Credit. There is no magic button that will fix this.
Nonetheless: it is notable that, yesterday, Hammond didn’t even try. For all his repeated claims that austerity was winding down, he didn’t even acknowledge this most visible manifestation of economic hardship. Perhaps he felt that the £100m rough sleeping strategy announced last August, not a penny of which was new, would solve the problem. It will not.
The quantities of money to fix potholes and buy baubles for school are far too small to bring austerity to an end, but that’s not really what they’re for: they’re there, instead, to show that the government is committed to patching up those bits of Britain’s physical and social fabric most likely to worry swing voters.
But the rise in rough sleeping is both more visible and more worrying. Austerity helped to cause it; Philip Hammond is not helping to fix it. Until he does, those voters will likely continue to feel that something has gone very wrong with this country.