Prime minister Rishi Sunak and the new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are warning us of a return to the brutal spending cuts of that miserable decade of austerity. It would be a social and economic disaster.
Spending cuts from 2010 onwards, jammed through by Conservative-led governments with George Osborne as the Chancellor, have done immense damage to British society. There is almost no part of the country and no one living here who has not been affected.
Health inequality expert Professor Michael Marmot and his team found that improvements in life expectancy had “stalled” in Britain for the first time since at least 1900. For women in the poorest areas, life expectancy actually fell in the 2010s. Marmot and his team attribute this shocking decline in the public’s health directly to austerity, which undermined the welfare of the poorest, in particular, and hacked away at the public services that help keep all of us healthy.
The NHS was creaking even before coronavirus. Despite its funding “protection” by Conservative-led governments, failures in the rest of the system and the demands of an ageing population are creating an immense shortfall in funds, relative to need.
Age UK estimate that 1.4 million elderly people are going without the support they need as a result of cuts to social care. Many of these vulnerable elderly people then end up in the NHS, increasing demands on the system. The King’s Fund health charity estimates the NHS now has a backlog of £9.2 billion of “essential” repairs. NHS England’s finance chief thinks the service will need another £7 billion just to maintain existing services. The shortfall in social care, meanwhile, has been estimated by the King’s Fund to be £6.1 billion.
Funding per pupil fell in our schools for the first time since the 1990s, dropping 13 per cent by 2019. That unloved symbol of educational underfunding, the Portakabin classroom, made a return to our schools, with the union NASUWT reporting that one in five teachers surveyed said “temporary” buildings had been opened to accommodate rising pupil numbers at their school.
This summer, Department for Education officials were warning that disrepair to school buildings had got so bad that in some cases it was a “risk to life”. More than 400,000 primary school pupils, more than one in ten, are being taught in classes with more than 30 others. Teachers themselves, facing falling real pay and the rising demands of teaching without the funds to do it properly, are leaving the profession in record numbers.
Local government has been particularly hard hit, with the Institute for Government describing councils in England as “hollowed out” by austerity. The poorest areas are worst affected, with up to 60 per cent cuts in their funding. A quarter of local government jobs have been lost, with youth services typically the first to take the hit. One in six libraries has been closed. More than 500 Sure Start centres have been closed. Weekly bin collections have become a thing of the past across much of the country.
And the impact stretches beyond just what government provides. As money has been sucked out of local economies, high streets and public life have suffered. Almost one in six pubs in Britain have closed since 2010. Technology has changed how we live our lives, and the move to online shopping and socialising was always going to change how our urban areas work. But instead of government investment creatively transforming our high streets – turning old shops into new libraries, or creating parks out of shopping streets – they have been left to fester.
But if the damage to social life from austerity is obvious, there have been hidden economic costs too, betraying a terrible short-termism in government thinking. The 2017 decision to close Britain’s biggest gas storage facility, housed in Rough, a disused gas field off the coast of Norfolk, has deprived us of what would be, today, a lifeline when National Grid is warning of shortages and blackouts next year. Countries in the EU typically have about 98 days of their national gas usage stored. The UK has four.
Flood defence spending was slashed by 14 per cent, leaving hundreds of thousands of households at increased risk of flooding, while the Environment Agency’s funding for work on river quality was reduced by two-thirds. Every river in England is currently testing as polluted, failing to meet minimum water quality standards.
Overall, Osborne slashed the government’s (already low, by international standards) investment in buildings, equipment and machinery by 40 per cent between 2011 and 2013. This short-termism has left us worryingly unprepared for worsening ecological crises. And because modern economies depend on good infrastructure, the overall impact is to slow economic growth and undermine wages. Wages and salaries, in real terms, are lower today than they were in 2010 – an incredible, unprecedented “lost decade”.
We have become collectively used to living in a poorer, unhealthier, meaner society as a result of austerity. Because of austerity, we typically work in lower paid jobs, receive worse care when we are sick, worse support if we are disabled or when we grow old, and will likely die younger.
The Conservative government for a time, was forced to recognise a problem. Boris Johnson won his 2019 election on a promise to end austerity. Government funding has increased, even without Covid spending, from its low point. But further cuts would pile a fresh social disaster on the one we have just experienced.