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Stop the bad maths and bluster and let's have a coherent debate about the big issues

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The long election campaign necessitated by the 2011 fixed-term parliament legislation has featured little insight into the fiscal plans of any of the parties.

Indeed, as it has become more likely that one party will not gain a majority, the promises have become all the more financially rash and unrealistic. Their commitments merely statements of outlook, in the knowledge they will not survive coalition or supply and confidence negotiations.

For example, from yet unspecified savings, David Cameron can legislate against tax increases, reduce the deficit and increase NHS spending. Similarly, with no evidence they are needed, Ed Miliband would recruit 1,000 extra border guards to demonstrate his commitment to controlling immigration.

Arguing against self-interest, buying votes or short-term tactics, Cicero advised ancient Rome and indeed all since that the supreme law shall be the benefit of the people: salus populi suprema lex esto.

Bluntly, against the context of the unparalleled fiscal challenges facing the UK, the parties have engaged in a badly constructed bidding war. We’re told you can fund housing associations’ right to buy by selling council properties. Well, the maths doesn’t work, actually! It would leave councils with just the liability/debt and not the asset, so you must ask who gave the policy advice on that idea: Tony Soprano?

Promising to fund the NHS by an additional £2.5bn, £8bn or £9.5bn is one thing, but does it afford value for money to promise even more nurses regardless of whether the NHS actually needs them? A leading NHS figure mused to me recently that the accompanying performance metric will be nurses per square metre.

Beyond the bad maths, bluster and spurious detail of the campaign, some big factors affecting public finance, for which there are no simple clichéd answers, remain to be debated.

For example, public sector pensions’ net liabilities now stand at about £1.3tn or two-thirds of UK gross domestic product and hang like a shadow over all future spending promises.

Similarly, advances in medical science and an ageing population will see healthcare spending rise as a proportion of GDP in all advanced nations in a way not envisaged when the NHS was created. It was 2% in 1948, is now 8% and will be 15%+ by 2048. Will the funding model be through taxation? Quite a lot of the pension liability mentioned above is for the NHS and growing faster than other parts of the state.

How will adult social care be funded? Health and social care integration is key but putting together two overspending systems does not quickly deal with funding pressures, no matter what the rhetoric says.

Also, areas protected from savings such as schools are not developing an embedded value for money culture at the frontline and in management when compared with areas facing cuts such as policing or local government. 

In the short, medium and long term all political parties will struggle to meet their funding pledges. 

My biggest personal gripe is the damage being done to the constitutional settlement of the UK. Whatever the future holds, portraying the will of Scottish people as a threat to the rest of the country is disgraceful. Angela Merkel would welcome the opportunity to build consensus and compromise. In fact, perhaps this is a learning point for the electorate. If the two party system is dead perhaps we have a right to know the detailed spending plans from a coalition slate, rather than getting rash or divisive promises made on the false premise that each of them expects to govern alone?

Post-election, the issue I will watch most is Devo Manc and the otherwise piecemeal approach to English devolution. Delegating £30bn of Whitehall spending, for example, is not devolution. Devolution is about policymaking and raising or adjusting funds locally.

Regional mayors in both London and Manchester by 2017, with health, police, councils and colleges aligned to a clear local strategy, will fundamentally alter the course of public service delivery in future decades. Devolution in Scotland, for example, has led to better public services and it will do so in England too.

So please, let’s have a coherent and respectful plan for devolution in the next parliament, whoever is in charge, and not one pulled in competing directions by intransigent voices pitting one community against another. 

This is an election more detached from the real business and purpose of government than any I can recall and in which politicians have avoided tackling many of the real and difficult challenges the UK faces. We can only hope that once the dust settles they will start to listen and reflect on why many are both gripped and disheartened by their performance.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy

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