Short-term and short-sighted: ‘Cuts’ to deliver less independence

Various organisations are collating information about the incidence of the Coalition’s programme of spending cuts as it emerges. Following the publication of the local government settlement, attention has recently switched to the impact on services provided by local authorities. A recent article posted at Guardian Society provides some insight into how local authorities are dealing with the need to prune budgets. The answer is not looking good for diverse groups of vulnerable households.  But things are playing out as, perhaps, might be anticipated.

The Government’s approach is politically cute. They are getting enough flak for cuts in other sectors, without being seen as culpable in cutting local services as well. A classic gambit identified in the literature on policy implementation is to hand a politically contentious problem on to someone else to sort out – typically the implementing organisations. The hope is that they get the blame and none of the mud sticks to you. I’m not sure it’s going to work in this case.

Local authorities provide a range of services that are highly valued by their resident populations. Many of these services fulfil legal duties and obligations. A whole heap of grief would follow from seeking to cut back on these.  But, on the other hand, it would be politically unpopular to suggest that those services without a similar statutory underpinning should bear the brunt of the cuts. Many of those services are funded through the Supporting People fund and are designed to enable vulnerable households to continue to live independently, outside of institutional or residential settings.

So instead of doing anything as overt as implying that there should be cuts in any specific area the government has taken a more convoluted approach. On the one hand, the relevant government department – Communities and Local Government – remains adamant that  it is committed to ensuring the vulnerable are protected (as it does again in the Guardian Society post), although it is rather vague regarding what that might mean in practice. At the same time, there is the repeated assertion from CLG that cuts in frontline services are not necessary in order to deliver the required savings. There is felt to be enough scope to deliver the savings through efficiency gains such as sharing CEOs. And that is in spite of protestations from the local authority sector that efficiency savings on this scale are just not possible.  On the other hand, the Government has removed the ringfence on Supporting People, thus ‘allowing’ – effectively, obliging – local authorities  to reprofile expenditure so as to continue to fulfil their statutory obligations.  Hence we can expect significant cuts in services going into the homes of older people, those with mental health or drug problems, or funding for support for homeless people or those fleeing domestic violence, among others.

This might save money in the short term. But will it save money in the longer term? Many of these services were developed as alternatives to providing much more expensive residential facilities or unnecessary acute care. They prevented unnecessary hospital admissions and reduced bed-blocking. Providing floating support into a vulnerable person’s own home, if it allows them to live independently, is much cheaper than conventional social housing and less costly for the individual than homelessness. So one might anticipate that some way down the line either there will be increased pressure on other statutory services – most likely those that are NHS funded – and/or an increase in homelessness. If households continue to live independently but without support then the consequence will be less visible – reduced quality of life, poorer nutrition, social isolation – but no less real for that.

So it seems that these cuts point to one of several possible futures:

  • they won’t save any public money, in anything other than the very short-term, because the costs will be incurred under other policy headings
  • they will save public money in the longer-term, but at the cost of a significant negative impact upon the quality of life of vulnerable households. There could potentially be a significant external cost on society more broadly, to the extent the cuts lead to more visible homelessness or people with chaotic lives without support.
  • the withdrawal of state support will lead to the development of substitute volunteer or voluntary sector activity and through that will reduce the broader external cost.

The latter ‘Big Society’ outcome is the most positive, and supports the Government’s perspective on the appropriate role for the state, but it is perhaps the least likely. Or, rather, while it is plausible to think that voluntary effort may well emerge to fill some of the gaps, it is not plausible to think that volunteers will pick up, and be effective in, the more challenging and complex situations. To think otherwise would be to stretch credibility. Keeping an older person company or doing a bit of shopping for them is one thing. Amateur support to someone with a chaotic lifestyle as a result of drug use or mental health issues is quite another. And there is a major risk that the Big Society is riven by the distinction between the deserving and undeserving.

The best guess would be that we are heading for a future of gaps – the question is just how big the gaps are and how many vulnerable people will fall through them. And at what cost.

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