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10 October 2018updated 04 Sep 2021 3:48pm

The deepest cuts: austerity measured

How public services from libraries and youth clubs to benefits and social care have been affected. 

By Patrick Maguire and Anoosh Chakelian

Local government

Local councils have borne the brunt of austerity. Real-terms funding for local authorities has been cut by 49 per cent since David Cameron took office as prime minister in 2010. One, Northamptonshire, was in effect declared bankrupt and voted to abolish itself in August. Many others have been forced to raid their cash reserves to stay afloat; the National Audit Office estimates that one in ten will have exhausted them by 2021.

Building Schools for the Future

Launched by Tony Blair in 2004, Labour’s £55bn plan to rebuild every state secondary school in England became the first major casualty of the coalition’s cuts when it was scrapped by Michael Gove in July 2010, with 719 schools forced to drop improvement plans. The then education secretary cited overspending, delays and excessive bureaucracy as justification, but, later, said “it was done in a crass and insensitive way and taught me a lesson”.

Education maintenance allowance

As late as January 2010, David Cameron had insisted that he had no plans to scrap weekly payments to 620,000 sixth formers and college students from lower-income families of between £10 and £30 – designed as an incentive to keep teenagers in education and training. By November 2010, however, the coalition announced that in England it would replace the £560m scheme with a much more limited £180m fund distributed directly by institutions. Almost half of England’s further education colleges saw a drop in student numbers the following year.

Police cuts

<span style=”letter-spacing:
-.1pt”>Home Office police spending has been cut by more than 20 per cent since 2011. There are now around 19,000 fewer officers than in 2010. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary warned last year that austerity had left the force in a “potentially perilous state” in England and Wales, with officers assigned to investigations they were not qualified to run.

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Legal aid

MPs have warned that swathes of the UK have become “legal aid deserts” after eligibility restrictions were introduced in 2013, with £950m less now spent on legal aid than in 2010. Criminal barristers went on strike earlier this year in protest, complaining that the cuts had impeded access to justice. In addition, 230 crown, county and magistrates’ courts have been shut since 2010.


A combination of yearly welfare payment freezes and the introduction of Universal Credit in 2013 have been reducing family incomes ever since former chancellor George Osborne announced his plan to cap benefits in October 2010. The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 enshrined these policies – including the hated bedroom tax – in law, and its effects are still being seen. Food bank use has increased by more than half in areas where Universal Credit has arrived, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes the year-on-year freeze in working-age benefits and tax credits as the “single biggest policy driver behind rising poverty, hitting families in and out of work”.

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Sure Start

New Labour’s flagship early years policy introduced in 1998, which gave parents pre-school learning, health and childcare support in Sure Start children’s centres across the country, has been dismantled by this government. The official figures say 500 of these centres have been closed since 2010, but Oxford academics found it is more likely double that figure, with the inclusion of “linked” sites for Sure Start services that some local authorities don’t count. Social mobility charity the Sutton Trust warns that reduced early years provision will be a “serious issue” for the development of children from the poorest homes.


Since 2010, more than 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland, while more than 230,000 library opening hours have been lost over the past eight years. This disproportionately affects vulnerable people as the elderly, disabled and those on low incomes rely on library services (internet access, benefits help, children’s clubs and pensioners’ groups, as well as books) more than others.

Social care and health

Social care was already under-funded when the coalition government came to power – with real-terms spending beginning to fall in 2009. But that’s accelerated since 2010, with real-terms spending on adult social care falling by 5.8 per cent since 2010. English councils are expected to cut nearly five per cent of the total £14.5bn budget in 2018/19. At the same time demand is rising: the number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3 per cent from 2010 to 2017. This puts pressure on other services, the NHS in particular.

Youth services

More than 600 youth centres have closed in Britain since 2010, with the loss of 139,000 youth places and 3,650 staff. Half of council funding for open access, frontline youth services has reduced nationwide. This is putting pressure on social care and mental health services for young people. In July, Childline reported a 14 per cent rise in children contacting the charity about loneliness this year.

Road maintenance

They say elections are won and lost on potholes. If so, the Conservatives are heading for oblivion. Amid squeezed local budgets, one in five of Britain’s local roads are in poor condition because of potholes. There was an 11 per cent increase in breakdowns caused by poor-quality roads in the last quarter of 2017, and the number of cyclists killed or injured on poorly maintained roads has tripled in a decade. l

This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain