Commentary on Philip Hammond’s autumn statement
Full LGC coverage: Click here for links to all of our autumn statement stories
Relive the fun: Autumn statement and reaction, as it happened
Non autumn statement financial worry story: Whitehall LGPS team ‘shrinks to one’
Well, let’s get the good news for local government in Philip Hammond’s first autumn statement out of the way early on.
Some very big numbers were being thrown around in terms of infrastructure investment relating to housing and transport, combined authority mayors will get enhanced borrowing powers and London will gain control of skills.
Meanwhile, the announcement that there will be a regional pilot of the extension of right-to-buy to housing association tenants raises questions about when and indeed whether the policy will be fully implemented.
However, what was not mentioned was perhaps more significant than what did appear in Philip Hammond’s speech.
In a parallel universe in which Brexit had not happened and George Osborne remained chancellor, it is hard to imagine him not goading the Labour benches opposite with some new devolution deal between predominantly Labour councils and the Tory government.
No disrespect to the Scottish city, but the announcement of negotiations beginning into a city deal for Stirling was perhaps not as significant as, say, confirmation that the North East had agreed to an elected mayor in return for tens of millions of extra investment spend. Alas the government has been distracted by Brexit and the North East’s deal has collapsed.
Some may take it as a sign of waning interest in devolution that Mr Hammond failed to take the opportunity to note how votes by councils in Cambridgeshire yesterday had cleared the way for an elected mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
It was also notable that some of the more significant announcements covered the country’s most prosperous areas. London mayor Sadiq Khan (Lab) described the autumn statement measures affecting the city as “the first step in our journey to give the capital a greater voice so we can protect jobs, wealth and prosperity and provide an extra incentive to economic growth”.
Around £140m was announced to improve transport links between Oxford and Cambridge. The project in the north of England that exercised Mr Hammond most was £8m to help save Wentworth Woodhouse, a Grade I mansion near Rotherham.
This prompted Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, to tweet: “Of course pleased for roads and historic buildings but it’s the Oxbridge and Wentworth Woodhouse #AutumnStatement so far… Pimm’s anyone?”
In fairness, there was the publication of a strategy for improving productivity in the Northern Powerhouse and the promise of a similar Midlands Engine Strategy. The £1.8bn local growth fund was reanounced with some further detail on how it would be distributed among the English regions. However, somehow Mr Hammond’s promise that “devolution remains at the heart of this government’s approach to supporting local growth” rang a little hollow.
But even the lukewarm devolution measures exceeded the support given to local government’s number one ask from the chancellor: funding to ease the crisis in social care. There had been hope the social care precept would be extended and that better care fund money would be brought forward; neither materialised.
Mr Hammond’s apparent acknowledgement of social care’s problems in his speech was shocking both in its brevity and low prioritisation:
“As we look ahead to the next parliament, we will need to ensure we tackle the challenges of rising longevity and fiscal sustainability.
“And so the government will review public spending priorities and other commitments for the next parliament in light of the evolving fiscal position at the next spending review.
“Mr Speaker I now turn to taxation.”
The lack of focus on social care has, as far as LGC has seen, been greeted with universal condemnation from the sector.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services – which likes to see itself as an insider organisation and has often been reluctant to speak out against government policy – did not mince its words. Immediate past president Ray James said: “The government’s failure to provide desperately needed extra funding for adult social care means that this winter and throughout next year we will inevitably see more older and disabled people not getting the care and support they rely upon to survive each day, an even greater toll being placed on the 6.5 million family members and other carers, increasing delays in the NHS, and even more care homes closing and growing gaps and failures in the care market.”
And a series of Conservative politicians joined their colleagues of other parties in expressing dismay. Local Government Association chair Lord Porter said: “It is unacceptable that this has not been addressed in the autumn statement. Services supporting our elderly and vulnerable are at breaking point now.”
Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Tragically, the human cost of this will be elderly and vulnerable people continuing to face an ever more uncertain future where they might no longer receive the dignified care and support they deserve, such as help getting dressed or getting out and about, which is crucial to their independence and wellbeing.”
And Philip Atkins, vice-chair of the County Councils Network, said: “The absence of new investment in social care will call into question the sustainability of services and local care markets, to the detriment of vulnerable residents and the ability of the NHS to deliver the government’s efficiency programme.”
The magnificent Wentworth Woodhouse has suffered from decades of neglect after – in what was widely regarded as class warfare – the post-war Labour government allowed an opencast coalmine to be built on its grounds. The mansion is effectively subsiding into the pit.
In a curious parallel, while the mansion may – rightly – be spared, the social care element of the same Labour government’s welfare state is rapidly subsiding into a pit. Mr Hammond has done nothing to save it.