Councils face a flat 6.2% cut to their 2015-16 public health budgets, under plans put out for consultation by the Department of Health on Friday.
The consultation comes almost two months after chancellor George Osborne first announced a £200m in year cut to the public health budget, equivalent to a 6.2% in the total ringfenced public health grant for 2015-16.
While the consultation sets out four options for how the cut could be applied, it makes clear the DH would prefer the cut to be applied equally across all authorities with responsibility for public health.
The other options are:
· The creation of a formula that would result in greater cuts for councils that receive more than their ‘target’ allocation;
· apply greater reductions to authorities carrying forward large underspends to 2015-16;
· applying a flat percentage cut, except where councils can show it would result in particular hardship due to exceptional circumstances.
The consultation says an across the board 6.2% cut would be the “simplest and most transparent option to implement and would enable the department to provide [local authorities] quickly with certainty on what would be required of them.”
It said that considering special cases from individual local authorities would be “considerably more complex to implement”.
“The need for DH to consider a potentially large number of cases means it would be likely to take significantly longer to provide LAs with clarity on the savings they would be required to make.”
Chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health, Nicola Close, told LGC the association did not have a preferred option at this stage and would be guided by members.
She added: “We’re disappointed the consultation has taken so long to come out but now it’s out we would encourage as many people as possible to respond.”
One senior public health source said most local authorities had already planned for a cut of around six or seven per cent.
Authorities that are underfunded against their target allocation may argue the proposed flat cut was unfair, they added.
According to figures from the Department for Communities & Local Government, more than half of the 152 councils with public health responsibilities are planning underspends in 2015-16, amounting to a total of £177m.
However, these councils are arguing they have plans to spend the money in future years.
The source added: “This is how the DH used to operate when [public health] was in [NHS] primary care trusts: whenever there was a crisis in A&E they dipped into public health reserves.”
They said that preventative services were likely to suffer most as councils would not stop funding treatment services such as sexual health and substance misuse.
The consultation asks for evidence on the impact of the cut.
This is likely to be considered in the spending review when funding for future years is determined.
Izzi Seccombe (Con) chair of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board and leader of Warwickshire CC, said further reductions should “move away from a focus on treating sickness to actively promoting health and wellbeing”.
A DH spokeswoman said: “Difficult decisions need to be made right across government to reduce the deficit and ensure the sustainability of our public services.
“That’s why we are consulting with local authorities on how best to deliver these savings in a way that minimises any impact on services.”
*This story was updated at 5.30pm on Friday 31 July to include reaction from key figures