The Chancellor has promised that “austerity is coming to an end”. The 2019 Spending Review is the first test of what that promise will mean in real terms particularly for women who have borne the brunt of austerity policies since 2010.
Women have been disproportionately impacted by changes to taxes, benefits and public spending, with BAME women and disabled women hardest hit. This is because of structural inequalities which means women earn less, own less and have more responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work.
After nearly a decade of chronic underfunding, our public services are in crisis. An end to austerity will have to mean more than simply an end to budget cuts. For those hit hardest by cuts to social security and public services, continuing as they are for the next few years certainly won’t feel much like the end of austerity. People on the ground need to see a marked improvement in public services and a rise in living standards more generally, if the Chancellor’s promise is going to ring true.
This will mean increased spending on social infrastructure, much of which is delivered by local government and which has borne the brunt of austerity measures since 2010.
Central government funding for local government fell by nearly 50% between 2010/11 and 2017/18. The Local Government Association (LGA) has calculated that £16billion will have been cut from councils’ budgets between 2010 and 2020 – the equivalent of 60p from every pound of central government – taxpayer – funding.
These cuts have had a devastating impact on local services. Spending on adult social care fell between 2010/11 and 2016/17, despite an increase of over 14% in the number of people aged over 65 in need of it. 1.4million people currently have unmet care needs. These cuts have disproportionately impacted on women who are more likely to need social care, more likely to work in the paid care sector and more likely to have to increase their unpaid work to provide care when public services are cut.
At the same time as rising demand and the drop in social care spending is having a very damaging impact on the amount and quality of care available and the pay and conditions of care workers, other services have been cut to the bone. Between 2010/11 and 2016/17 there was a massive 32.6% reduction in expenditure on all other council services. This is largely because social care now accounts for over 54% of all local authority spend – up from 45% in 2010/11. The National Audit Office has described this shift as “reducing services to a core offering centred on social care”.
This is evident in the drastic reduction in expenditure on youth services (65%), planning services (53%), Sure Start (50%), housing (46%), highways and transport (37%) and cultural and related services (35%) between 2010/11 and 2016/17. In that period there was a 48% drop in the number of local authority subsidised bus services and more than 10% of libraries were closed – with many more now run largely by volunteers with declining new stock. A thousand Sure Start centres and almost 350 playgrounds have closed since 2014. Cuts to services for children and young people disproportionately impact women who still have the primary responsibility for childcare in most households, even when they are employed outside of the home. Women are more likely than men to depend on local bus services and women are more likely to use libraries.
Many of the services dealing with violence against women and girls (VAWG) are reliant on local government funding. Yet more than 75% of England’s local authorities slashed their spending on domestic violence refuges - by nearly a quarter (24%) - between 2010 and 2017. The lack of refuge spaces saw more than 1,000 vulnerable women and children turned away from centres over a six-month period in 2017. 17% of specialist women’s refuges were forced to close between 2010 and 2014, and a third of all referrals to refuges are currently turned away. A survey by Women’s Aid revealed that 20.3% of refuges in its 2017 survey received 25% or less of their funding from councils and 12% received none at all.
BME projects tackling violence against women and girls have been particularly badly hit. Across England, councils invested just £1.172million across 24 BME projects tackling gender-based violence – less than 11% of total expenditure; funding has been cut and services shifted to generic providers in some areas, undermining specialist provision for BME women.
And these cuts have not been equally distributed across the country. The National Audit Office (NAO) has shown that while average local government spend on services fell by 19.2% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, this reflected a range between 13.2% for county councils and shire districts (combined) and 25% for metropolitan districts. The New Policy Institute concluded that “almost the entire burden of the reduction on spending on disadvantage is in the most deprived 20% of councils”. 97% of cuts in services to the most disadvantaged have been in the 40% most deprived councils, as these councils have faced the largest reductions to their spending power, affecting those women most under pressure.
As austerity bites hard into local government services, the Government is also planning to change the system of funding in English councils. It plans to remove all central government grant funding by 2020, making local authorities reliant on local funding from council tax and business rates. Councils will be allowed to retain 75% of business rates from that date – a policy move with uncertain consequences, especially for councils with lower business rate raising potential. Those with the lowest receipts from business rates are likely to have the poorest populations and the highest social care demands. This may result in the poorest localities having to charge a higher rate of council tax, even though their residents can least afford this.
Heather Wakefield is the former head of local government at Unison and author of the Women’s Budget Group report, Triple Whammy: the impact of local government cuts on women