The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predict that by the end of this financial year 60% of the cost reduction programme will have yet to reach the front line. Eighteen months ago council leaders were talking about the "graph of doom" - the time when repeated budget cuts would reduce local authority services to little more than bin collections, care for the elderly and looked after children. Now even that seems optimistic. With a further swing of the axe promised in 2015/16 there is no end in sight - will it be long before we are forced to choose between between bin collections and care?
The poorest boroughs like Newham - hit 10 times harder than the richest by local authority cuts - felt the brunt of the recession but are not feeling the recovery. We might expect a delay between growth returning and it feeding through into renewed support for public services and particularly for the poorest communities, but this doesn't feel like the predictable lag between the time when an uplift in the private sector ripples out into the public. This feels like a disconnect.
Take the social security system. While the sound principles underpinning Universal Credit are mired in severe delays to implementation, harsh cuts to other benefits have led to destitution, worsening health, precarious housing, isolation, and increasing desperation. The people queueing in the rain outside our advice service each morning are not feeling a recovery; in research due to be released in a couple of weeks, one man told us he would rather be in prison: "it's a better life I think... no council tax, no rent. I might actually have food over there." As rents and house prices rise inexorably young people on low incomes are being threatened with the wholesale removal of housing benefit for under 25s.
At their best public services don't just pick up the pieces after crisis but act earlier to equip us with the skills to seize opportunity and to flourish. But as cuts bite and crisis takes hold, services retreat; too busy dealing with the disasters at the door to devote any time to preventing the next, in a self-destructive circle. Support for early action services has fallen even faster than the average, and the National Audit Office found that only 6% of public spending went to early action. The outgoing NHS Chief Executive recently argued for an extra £5bn 'Change Fund' to cover the costs of a fundamental shift to a more preventative service, but extra investment in early action seems unthinkable at a time when meagre existing spend is shrinking fast.
While the Chancellor in his budget tomorrow will speak of the Spring shoots of economic recovery, it is still Autumn in the land of public services and in communities like ours in east London. As the economy appears now to be picking up for some but grinding others further down it is surely time to revive the discussion about the cuts and whether those who bore the biggest burden of the recession should also benefit least from the recovery. If we were all in it together, shouldn't we get out of it together?Suggest a correction