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Visible public squalor is not a great advert for a political party

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One of the less discussed aspects of the Conservative leadership run-off has been the extent of the promises to deliver tax cuts and public spending increases.

Even Theresa May, during her final weeks in Downing Street, has been bidding for Treasury cash to spend on schools and colleges. The police, defence, social care, the NHS and education have all featured in the candidates’ wishlists, as have a range of tax cuts.

Poor Philip Hammond has been left defending the Treasury’s coffers from all these attempts to use taxpayers’ cash to soften Conservative members’ hearts. Or, in Ms May’s case, to buy a policy legacy. Sadly, though predictably, the parts of the public sector that have faced the biggest cuts since 2010 have been unmentioned by senior Tories now converted to tax giveaways and spending increases. The need to be seen to plan for a 31 October ‘no deal’ Brexit will consume countless further billions between now and Halloween.

Against this background it is worth setting out the case for local government getting a share of the newly glugging cash. Other unloved provision such as the Home Office, justice, transport and culture may also wish to note the sudden appearance of a radical change in relation to the government’s decade-long austerity policy.

But back to councils and their funding. The effect of the way deficit reduction has been approached since 2010 has concentrated the deepest cuts on services people see right outside their front doors. Street cleaning, refuse collection, road surfaces, pavements, lighting, parks, leisure, street homelessness, graffiti and planning have all seen their spending cut by typically 30 to 60% in real terms in 10 years. Over the same period, the NHS, state pensions and international aid have seen sharp real increases. Defence and education were largely protected.

Austerity has been visited on almost every street in the country in a highly visible way. The retail industry has been changing structurally over the same period, contributing to an evident deterioration of many high streets. Relentless utility works have added to the challenge of managing the environment. As a result of these separate phenomena, the full impact of cuts to public expenditure have been delivered to neighbourhoods across the country.

The government did not intend it to be like this.

First, austerity was originally meant to end in 2015. Second, the state pension ‘triple lock’ has created political competition which generates relentless demand for higher public spending. Third, Brexit preparations are now clocking up higher spending in a number of Whitehall departments, with more to come from the next Conservative leader.

The Conservative party has historically been famed internationally for its pragmatism and common-sense approach to government. The party has hitherto been one of the most successful in the democratic world. Clean streets, good roads, nice parks and regular bin collections were the hallmark of Tory localism. There is now a risk that this reputation for good services and low taxes gets lost under the weight of Brexit.

Brexit will eventually go away, while the need to sweep the streets will not. For a fraction of the sums now being promised explicitly or implicitly to the voting faithful, it would be possible to have a local renaissance – starting the process of reversing the damage done to neighbourhood services in recent years.

Cutting the deficit was brave politics and the Conservatives’ achievement in doing so is, in many ways, remarkable. But voters are tired of austerity and its physical manifestations. As the candidates’ debates continue, it would be good to hear some local Tory activists asking about local renewal and greater freedom for councillors to make their own decisions again. Visible public squalor is not a great advert for any political party.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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