Cutting public health budgets by £200m is “short-sighted, short-term and unwarranted”, according to the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.
LGC exclusively revealed in June that public health budgets were targeted for cuts by the Treasury because of a multi-million pound underspend in 2013-14.
In a joint response to the Department for Health’s consultation, the LGA and Solace said there had been a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how councils had managed public health budgets to date.
They said: “The ‘underspend’ in most cases is not an underspend at all but rather a planned approach to public health service development across several years and may therefore now be committed in contracts. Councils took time to manage their new contracts, disinvest from services that were not delivering improved outcomes and they took time to plan more prudently.
“That was something that the ringfenced budget and funding levels announced for multiple years was supposed to incentivise, ensuring that end-of-year budgets are not squandered on last minute spending in order to meet their annual allocation.”
LGC reported last month that councils faced a flat 6.2% cut to their 2015-16 public health budgets. Finding the savings would be “challenging”, the LGA and Solace said and added they wanted clarification that the cuts would come with “no further strings”.
“Anything less, will create a ringfence within a ringfenced budget and make the task of finding the reduction more difficult,” they said.
The response also requested clarification on whether the savings would be “recurrent”.
The LGA and Solace said £200m cuts would “undermine” shared objectives to improve the public’s health and reduce the pressure on the NHS and adult social care services. They added it would be “impossible” to prevent the reductions affecting the NHS due to the number of services councils commission through it.
“Even if councils seek to protect these areas, councils would need to make the reductions from other areas of public health which would critically reduce the staff and skills and other programmes like weight management and physical activity,” the consultation response warned.
Councils contributed an additional £54m to public health spending from their own resources in 2013-14, the LGA and Solace said and they warned the cuts this year were likely to have “the negative effect of deterring councils from contributing other funding streams to public health in future”.
They added there was a “danger” that if public health spending continued to be treated differently from ringfenced NHS budgets then they would never “properly integrate”.