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Tony Travers: Civic squalor hinders marketing of post-Brexit Britain

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The government’s decision to divert £1.3bn of education funding to England’s schools in 2017-18 is evidence of how effective parents, teachers and MPs can be in squeezing additional cash from a weakened government. 

The dedicated schools grant (DSG) has risen by almost 16% in cash between 2011-12 and 2017-18, with a further 3% available in 2018-19. Thus schools’ spending is rising, overall, by about 3% per year in cash.

The ring-fence offered by the DSG has protected schools from the huge reductions borne by local government. For spending apart from adult social care, where the government is now adding new funding each year from council tax and grant, councils face further cash reductions through to 2019-20.

It is amazing how difficult an ‘austerity’ government finds it to cut total funding for schools, the NHS or pensions. Or, now, defence, police and non-pension benefits. The government’s method of holding down overall public spending while allowing many service budgets to increase each year has required local authority expenditure to be cut more sharply than virtually any other part of the public sector.

Councils themselves have protected social care and environmental services as far as possible. But against a backdrop of a rising population and increased demand, even these favoured services (with the exception of children’s services) have faced real cuts. The overall impact of central and local government priorities has been, though no one actually planned it in this way, to maximise the impact of deficit reduction on the public realm.

Parks, refuse collection, street cleaning, building maintenance, road maintenance, town centre improvements and elements of social housing have inevitably faced the deepest cuts to funding. Despite the ingenuity of local government in renegotiating contracts, increasing recycling, dimming street lights, filling potholes with tar and turning lawns into wildflower meadows, the condition of the places most people spend much of their time is degenerating fast.

Private affluence is not enough if it is surrounded by public squalor. A tatty and grubby civic environment is not the best one for Britain to offer as it seeks to market itself anew to the post-Brexit world. The streets that surround schools also matter.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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