The end of austerity is here, Sajid Javid tells us. The “page is turned”. If only it really were that easy to erase the damage done during a decade of public services stripped bare. No department will suffer further cuts and all their budgets will keep pace with inflation. It’s good news that “the biggest increase in spending for a decade” means no new punishment will be inflicted on the public realm. An election is on the way and voters won’t take it any more.
They need no focus groups to tell them people put the NHS, schools and police top of their priorities. The deep school cuts led to the firing of teachers and teaching assistants; stopped music, drama, art and school trips; closed breakfast clubs for hungry children; and left headteachers begging parents for pencils and glue. The damage emerged into the light of day to Theresa May’s political discomfort in the 2017 election. Now the annual funding is restored, but 10 years of spending are lost for ever.
NHS waiting lists are still lengthening, A&E departments are still overflowing, UK health spending is still the second lowest in the G7, though May’s five-year funding pledge, starting next year, has cooled the political heat somewhat. Police were bound to get more, of course: the cutting of 20,000 officers was an embarrassment to a Tory government.
But beyond the glaring depredations, the decade ends with gaping black holes across the public realm. The fabric of civilised life has grown perilously stretched and thin, with safeguards no longer reliable. You may expect environmental health officers to be toiling away unseen, but inspections of food outlets have been cut right back and air-quality monitoring stations have been closed. As I have travelled the country chronicling events for a book I am writing with David Walker, called The Lost Decade, I met a steel stockholder in Derby who says health and safety inspections are virtually a thing of the past: he sees atrocious risks taken by other firms in a dangerous industry. A butcher in Rotherham says he hasn’t seen an inspector in years; these days they are “like hens’ teeth”.
About 600,000 public service jobs have gone – some say a million – a quarter lost from local government. Skilled, experienced staff have left and are not easily replaced overnight when the Treasury releases a little money. The missing police officers, GPs, nurses, trading standards officers, firefighters and all the rest can’t be magicked out of the air. A deep reservoir of knowledge has drained away. That won’t be solved by spending taps dripping a little money on to parched services.
Councils have lost £16bn over the decade: an injection of £3.75bn was grandly announced, though nearly half of that sum will come not from Treasury generosity but from council tax and business rate payers. Look around at all that’s gone. I watched the sad closure of an old people’s day centre in Hastings, sending the frail back home alone: Age UK says 54,000 have died waiting for care at home. The 40% that has been cut from social care, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, will eat up all the council increases: expect no brave new funding scheme, after the last plans sank May’s election campaign.
The loss of social workers, school nurses, health visitors and family supports has increased the number of children in care by 15%. Councils are coping – or mostly not coping – with a third more homeless families, while those not qualifying spill on to the streets in an awkward reprise of the Thatcher years.
Things less visible include Natural England losing half its budget and 1,000 staff; among other things the body conserves sites of special scientific interest. The promise was 11m trees planted, but only 1.4m were in the ground at the last count. Housing yet again misses its targets. The Forensic Science Service was abolished. The road repair backlog of 7.8m potholes competes for attention with closed libraries, local museums, youth centres, bus services.
What the chancellor offered was more elements of an election manifesto than a serious review, and we don’t get tax or social security plans until the autumn budget. So what is missing from Javid’s munificence is any hint about whether the great injustices of the benefit cuts will ever be repaired – or will tax cuts prevail instead? Here’s the scale of it: Ben Zaranko of the IFS says it needs £39bn to restore the axed benefits in real terms to their 2010 levels: cuts have been so deep and there are more disabled and elderly now. The long freeze goes on and universal credit, the two-child limit, bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits – all the policy savagery takes its toll. Child poverty, at nearly 40%, is the highest recorded since the war.
All in all, the IFS says it would take £60bn to get back to 2010. Pay is still not back to 2008 levels. There has never been such a regressive decade, with everything in retreat and the young less well off than their parents were at their age.
Of course the starving man welcomes any crumbs, even from the hands of those who starved him. Most services got a fillip yesterday, with nods to the plundered diplomatic service, the wrecked justice system and the plight of nurseries. But combating the disastrous legacy of austerity requires far, far more than this.
The government hopes that loosening the Treasury screws will deprive Labour of its strongest election issue. No chance. Everyone can see the frayed social fabric all around them: in unkempt parks, neglected playgrounds, shuttered services, long waiting times. And all that heedless, needless cutting was for nothing: breaking the fiscal rules proves this was about pure ideology, not economics. Meanwhile, the price of Brexit “preparedness” has already reached £8.3bn. And most depressingly of all, if Brexit does happen, this may be the last largesse for many years.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist