Britain’s public services are stuck in a “doom loop” of recurring crises as a result of ministers’ short-term policymaking, a thinktank has warned.
Public services are performing worse than before the pandemic and much worse than when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, according to the Institute for Government (IfG) annual report on the state of public services.
Warning that the “consequences of successive governments’ short-term policymaking” were coming home to roost, the IfG said that “public services that have for years been creaking are now crumbling”.
The thinktank said decades of capital underinvestment, combined with funding cuts and strike disruption, were having a serious impact on the productivity of public services, as exemplified by the school closures due to the risk of collapse from crumbling Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) shortly before the start of term.
Nick Davies, an IfG programme director and the report’s author, said: “Public services are in a dire state and will likely deteriorate further if whoever forms the next government sticks to current spending plans.
“Improvements are possible but difficult decisions will be necessary to break out of the negative cycle of short-termism that has characterised government decision-making, particularly in recent years.”
The IfG warned that although the current spending settlement, which runs until April 2025, initially appeared generous, its value had been eroded by high inflation. Spending plans from April 2025, which Labour has said it would stick to, would mean that all services other than children’s social care could be performing worse in 2027-28 than in 2019, a year when all services except schools underperformed in comparison to 2010.
The “incredibly tight” spending plans mean the settlements for unprotected areas of public spending average -1.2% a year in real terms, the report stated.
Noting that the UK “has long invested less in its public services than other wealthy nations”, the IfG said the government risked “getting stuck in a ‘doom loop’, with the perpetual state of crisis burning out staff and preventing services from taking the best long-term decisions”, and warned that “escaping this will not be easy”.
The report examined the state of nine public services: general practice, hospitals, adult social care, children’s social care, neighbourhood services, schools, police, criminal courts and prisons.
It found that the crown court backlog had reached a record 64,709 cases in June 2023, although the greater complexity of the cases meant the “effective backlog” was closer to 89,937 cases. Prisons, meanwhile, are “at bursting point”.
The hospital elective waiting list has risen to 7.8 million, compared with 4.6 million on the eve of the pandemic, while only slightly more than half of those attending A&E are admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours.
Many services are facing a “full-blown workforce crisis”, with experienced staff departing, record vacancies in the NHS and adult and child social care, and not enough trainee teachers.
Other services such as adult social care have seen additional funding eaten up by higher costs, which the IfG said resulted in “little progress in reducing unmet and under-met need”.
In the last three years, seven local authorities have issued a section 114 notice – in effect signalling bankruptcy – compared with one in the first three decades after the measure’s introduction, with other councils warning they may follow suit.
The thinktank added that there was “no meaningful fat to trim” after more than a decade of austerity, and that further cuts would damage service performance even more.
The report set out four ways to remedy the situation: a new, more generous yet politically sustainable multi-year budget for each public service; a long-term capital programme covering buildings, equipment and IT; a stable long-term policy agenda, with far less churn among both ministers and officials; and improvements to pay negotiations, workforce planning, and working conditions to enable staff retention.
Source : The Guardian