As the chancellor prepares his Autumn Budget, not only does he have a challenging fiscal and political situation to work with, but also a challenging public opinion climate.
Frankly, the public is getting tired of austerity. The proportion who say cuts are necessary to pay off our debts has fallen from 59% in 2010 down to 22% in 2017. Those who are willing to accept less from public services in order to reduce our national debt has fallen from 47% in 2010 to 20%. The proportion who say we should spend more, even if it means tax rises, is now at 63%. Some 65% say they are personally willing to pay more tax to help the NHS.
Local government is bearing the brunt of seven years of cuts, and has seen the proportion who think it provides value for money fall from 35% (net) to 20% in the Local Government Association’s own survey over the last five years.
Given continued rises in council tax, combined with major cuts in universal services forced on local government by a 50% central government funding reduction, this cannot be a surprise. The National Audit Office is currently looking at the financial sustainability of local government and its conclusions may not be surprising, but will be important. There is no clear future for local public services, given the population growth and reductions in central grants that are not going to be replaced by local business rates in many cases.
What sort of ‘steady state’ should we be looking for? Where we are currently is not sustainable. Either what local government is held responsible for will need to reduce, or national or local taxes will need to rise.
Now is the time for local government and its partners to make the case to Philip Hammond to rise in spending on social care and the NHS to be funded by a hypothecated tax rise.
Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos MORI