Philip Hammond has a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, limiting expectations he will confront society’s greatest problems head-on in next week’s autumn statement.
However, the financial crisis facing many parts of the public sector is now so acute that the chancellor surely has to embrace radicalism. The traditional safety-first option of doing little will lead to services collapsing and an even greater calamity.
In particular, the depth of social care’s funding shortfall has been ignored for too long. The government was disingenuous when it hailed last year’s introduction of a social care precept of up to 2% on council tax bills as something close to a resolution of the problem.
It was insufficient to even cover the costs of the national living wage, yet alone the impact of the ageing population. Providers are leaving the market in droves and councils face a total overspend approaching half a billion pounds. It remains to be seen whether the NHS’s sustainability and transformation plans really will bring about a necessary shift in resources. And it is hard to believe the precept hike – that LGCplus.com last week revealed ministers are considering – amounts to anything more than a sticking plaster solution.
Meanwhile, LGC has also disclosed that measures to boost house building, including action against ‘land banking’ by developers, are being considered for inclusion in teh autumn statement.
Theresa May’s government has rightly identified the shortage of homes, as the Cameron administration did, as a leading priority. However, a housing ‘capacity fund’ launched by the Department for Communities & Local Government last week was supported with just £18m, a sum it was implausibly claimed would “help accelerate delivery of up to 800,000 homes”. This works out at an average of £22.50 per house, little more than a drop in the ocean. Only radicalism can address the housing crisis: after so many years in which the market has failed to deliver now would be a sensible moment for the government to promote councils as builders of houses.
For too long governments have either ignored the biggest issues or exaggerated their meagre efforts to overcome them. Electorates are feeling conned and there is growing discontent with the political establishment. Thus Jeremy Corbyn has overcome New Labour and Donald Trump – a man who blames free-trade and free-immigration for the plight of the rust belt – has triumphed over the insider Hillary Clinton for the US presidency.
Western liberal democracy is at a turning point. Spin doesn’t cut it anymore; only real empowerment and bold attempts to improve living standards can ward off political crisis. Should the chancellor shun radicalism and follow the same old paths the pressure on England’s conventional politicians will intensify. It no longer seems so far-fetched to believe the electorate will be driven towards some Trump-esque extremist whose ‘simple’ solutions will lead to even greater division.