Britain in 2020 – a vision of the potential, from rutted roads to citizen cops

Councils

Local government has already endured a 40% cut since 2010. Professor Tony Travers of the LSE says: “It’s unprecedented. Local government will continue to exist, but it would look different to anything we have known.”

The National Audit Office recently warned that more than half of councils currently risk financial failure by the end of the decade. Travers predicts they would not go bankrupt – councils would reduce services in line with resources rather than go under – but they might be “incapable of delivering” services they are by law obliged to provide, which might lead to local cuts being tested in the courts.

Without financial let-up, the shape of councils would change drastically. Some have already become so-called “commissioning authorities” to cut costs, outsourcing many services to the private sector. Already under-pressure services such as roads maintenance, planning, environmental inspection, theatres, leisure centres and libraries might disappear altogether.

Even adult social care and children’s social care, up to now relatively protected within council budgets, will come under tight scrutiny, with the prospect that hundreds of thousands of infirm, ill and disabled citizens would no longer be eligible for council care help, and many Sure Start centres would close.

The Local Government Association estimates that the current £1.6bn gap between adult social care demand and available resources will spiral to £4.3bn by 2019-20. It rankles in town halls that the NHS gets preferential treatment. “The government must acknowledge that adult social care is in crisis now,” the LGA said.

The government, however, considers that councils have handled the cuts well so far – and so why not a further raft of cuts? Ministers believe current cash saving ruses, such as shifting services online, or out to the private sector, will continue deliver savings, although even the Treasury, in its Efficiency and Reform document published on Wednesday, admits that over the next five years “future savings will be more difficult to achieve.”

In town and county halls there is talk of existential and financial crisis. Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City council, says: “Councils up and down the country are creaking at the seams as a result of the chancellor’s ruthless pursuit of reducing the deficit at any cost. People are hurting now and I fear for our communities if cuts to public spending continue for another four years, which independent experts are saying would take us into uncharted territory.”

Welfare

If the Conservatives win the next election, then “harsh” further cuts to the welfare state will be made, so that by 2020, people who lose their jobs or have children will find there is far less state support and protection available than what was on offer in 2010.

The cumulative impact of the new cuts – added to recently-introduced measures like the bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits and tougher sanctioning regimes for benefits recipients – would hit those at the bottom of the income distribution hardest, academics predicted.

“If we continue in the way we have for the last four years the protection, the state will be doing less to protect people in hard times during their working lives,” professor John Hills, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, at the London School of Economics, says. “The overall picture is that the combination up to 2014/15 of all the cuts to benefits, alongside the increase in the personal allowance, is that the bottom half of the income distribution loses in general and the nearer that you are to the bottom, the more you lose. The biggest gainers are the people in the middle of the top half. It’s only when you get right to the top that the tax increases weigh the benefits in the personal allowances.”

Preparing packages at a foodbank
New cuts to welfare are likely to mean many more people resorting to foodbanks. Photograph: David Jones/PA

Andrew Hood, research economist with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says: “The welfare budget has already been cut by between £20-£25bn under current coalition government policies. [Osborne] wants to do half as much again as what’s happened in this parliament – which gives a sense of the scale of the cuts, and their likely impact. The working age welfare bill is currently around £95bn. He wants to cut that by a further £12bn.”

The current benefit represents a cap at £500 a week; families would be capped at £440 a week if they drop the level. For some families that might mean a weekly reduction in income of £160 a week.

Senior policy and research officer Moussa Haddad with the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “[Osborne] hasn’t mentioned child poverty since the budget 2012 in any financial statement. What has been announced in the autumn statement make it even less likely that the government will meet its 2020 target,” he said.

Justice

Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has already said he is expecting a further 20% cut in police funding: “It is not unrealistic to expect forces to lose another 34,000 posts and this figure would rise exponentially if the imposed cut was to increase. The impact, however, in our view would be far greater on the frontline which up until now forces have been trying to protect.”

The Treasury envisages a brave new world of digital policing in which officers use their mobiles to capture all the evidence they need at the scene of a crime to be used at a virtual trial without the need for witnesses, suspects, lawyers or police officers in an actual courtroom. All without returning to a physical police station.

That at least is the official view within George Osborne’s autumn statement of how it is intended the government will move towards a “digital end-to-end criminal justice system” to reduce costs and delays by 2020. The home secretary, Theresa May, has already talked about the need of merging the bluelight services of police, fire and ambulance to make substantial savings.

Others, including the influential centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange has floated the idea of a national network of citizen police academies to train up to 1.8m members of the public to help fight crime and for local police foundations to persuade philanthropists to supplement their much reduced public funding.

Education

Fears are growing that the government might be preparing the ground to cut its commitment to protect school spending. Sam Freedman, who was an adviser to former education secretary Michael Gove and is now a director of Teach First, tweeted: “If the next Govt do try and cut by the planned amounts then there’s no way schools can be protected (unless the NHS takes a big cut).” , said: “The problem we face is that 10-year-olds don’t vote. We’ve had various commitments to protect funding in the NHS. We’ve not had a similar commitment to protect education funding yet.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned of bigger class sizes, larger schools and a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention as the value of a teacher’s salary continues to fall. Free schools, usually small and in places of low demand, would become “a luxury we can ill afford”, said Hobby, and academies would no longer be given the funding premiums they were in the past.

Support services like school improvement programmes, behavioural support, legal support, professional development and training – once provided by local authorities – will become harder to access.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), said schools would also be dealing with the consequences of a growing number of children who would be thrown into poverty. “The achievement gap is going to widen and the number of children who are disadvantaged educationally, socially and economically is going to rise. The future is extremely bleak.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said money was already tight in schools which will have to deal with growing numbers of pupils in coming years because of a bulge in the birth rate. “I can see a dystopian future where edubusiness takes over, children are taught in groups of 90 with a few screens around and one not-very-well qualified teacher in the classroom.

“But I just can’t imagine that politicians would believe that’s an attractive proposition. I’ve got a three-year-old granddaughter – the idea she would be in a school with that kind of thing going on … I think people would take to the streets, wouldn’t they?”

Transport

Higher fares, bumpier roads and poorer services are in store should transport spending be slashed. But more than that: taking a further 40% out of the transport budget is impossible without overturning key coalition pledges on investment.

The Department for Transport’s annual budget is divided into infrastructure and day-to-day spending. Of this year’s £12.3bn, all but £3.5bn is devoted to infrastructure projects. For next year, that overall figure is cut by 10%, while there is a real-terms 5.5% increase in the budget for building roads, rail and HS2. This is money the government has promised to ringfence, including by making the Highways Agency an arms-length body with its own five-year settlement to deliver the £15bn roads programme trumpeted this week. The capital grant for works in London has also been pledged until the end of the decade; and London accounts for about a quarter of the DfT budget.

Car drives past a big pothole
Existing commitments to transport infrastucture spending could mean other costs such as road repairs can no longer be met. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

The only way the DfT could then take its full whack of cuts under this scenario would be for all other spending to cease. That means employment, fare subsidies and road maintenance. That clearly can’t or won’t happen. But even smaller-scale cuts will threaten many current services and mean politically toxic fare rises. Some efficiency savings may still be possible – for example, by pooling departmental budgets to secure the bespoke transport services paid for by health and education departments more cheaply.

But generally, it would be carnage. London has already warned that with major cuts to its budget fares would have to shoot up or services axed. Cuts from the 2010 spending review included the bus service operators’ grant, reducing bus services nationwide. Councils have already warned that their statutory obligation to provide free travel to pensioners is an unsustainable burden.

Environment

Protecting water, food and the air we breathe are at the heart of the responsibilities of tThe Department of Environment, Food and Rural affairs has already suffered one of the greatest budget cuts in this parliament and the prospect of another third being lost by 2020 is a serious concern to many. The capacity of the Environment Agency and Natural England to continue their work would be “hammered” by the cuts, according to Will Straw at the thinktank IPPR. The UK already has illegal levels of air pollution in some cities. The natural world would suffer too, says Martin Harper at the RSPB, who says the government is not on track even now to meet international commitments to protect wildlife sites and threatened species.

Other casualties of further cuts could be the rollout of broadband internet access to rural areas, support for farm business and perhaps the controversial badger cull, which has cost far more than expected. In food, the horsemeat scandal highlighted the inadequacy of existing regulation.

The impact on all these areas is exacerbated by the pledge to maintain flood defence funding to 2020. The cuts expected by 2020 may even see the end of Defra, with some long-term observers believing the department is already unviable on current budgets and will need to be merged.

Defence

The British army, still reeling from cuts from 102,000 to 82,500, could be left at levels not seen since the 18th century. Within the MoD, officials are speculating, with a sense of foreboding, on further reductions in the regular army, with a worst-case scenario that would see it cut to 60,000. Large-scale projects too could be hit, with reductions or delays in frigates, helicopters and the number of F-35s for the new aircraft carriers, though many of the contracts have already been signed.

The biggest savings of all could come from cancellation of part or all of the Trident nuclear submarine programme but Labour, like the Conservatives, is publicly committed. Savings through delays are a possibility.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, director of defence policy studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said next year’s spending review could be on track for a further real-terms cut of around 8% in defence up to 2020, with much of the saving having to be made in personnel numbers.

Chalmers, who was a member of the Cabinet Office consultative group for the 2010 strategic defence review, considers a reduction of regular army numbers to 60,000 to be too alarmist and that a cut of several thousand regulars is more likely, with further savings being made by cutting back on troubled plans for the recruitment of 12,000 more reservists.

James de Waal, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House who is looking at defence spending, said: “I think the MoD will suffer real cuts to its budget and, therefore, its capabilities. But it won’t be allowed to reduce its formal commitments, its planned equipment programmes and its structure, leading to an increasingly hollowed-out force. Efficiencies may limit some of the damage but it won’t be enough to avoid real front-line reductions.”

He said there is already a big gap between what ministers and the public expect of the armed forces and what they can do in reality. “The time may soon come when people will think that Britain can still send powerful forces around the world, when all they can in fact do is make token contributions to campaigns led by other countries,” he said.

Energy and climate change

The Department of Energy and Climate Change budget has fared much better than Defra since 2010, but a huge chunk of its funding is spent on clearing up 50 years of nuclear waste. Straw said the predicted cuts by 2020 would damage the function of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Support for clean, renewable and community energy would suffer as would schemes to improve the UK’s cold, draughty homes, which are among Europe’s worst and are linked to the 18,000 excess winter deaths last year.

Andrew Warren, at the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said reduced funding for insulation that makes homes warm and cheaper to heat is “madness”. He said: “Contrast that with Germany’s announcement on Wednesday that they are putting a further €1bn euros a year into residential energy efficiency schemes.”

The arts

Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, said: “If we continue along this path and if other sources of investment aren’t found, there just won’t be as many producing arts organisations nationally as there are now, it just won’t be affordable. So there won’t be as many opportunities for people from deprived backgrounds to engage in creative opportunities and the range of backgrounds from which our creative community is comprised will be less representative. As a result our creative input will be damaged and our reputation internationally will be vulnerable.”

Morris’s concerns were echoed by Victoria Pomery, director of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, which has been open for just over three years and receives public subsidy.

She said: “We’re in a part of the UK that is not particularly wealthy, here in Margate we’ve got some of the poorest wards in the UK, so finding means to fill those increasing funding gaps is a real challenge.

“Personally I am very fearful for the diversity and the ecology of the arts in this country, particularly outside the big cities,” she added. “If funding for the arts is cut, as is almost inevitable, we could see significant changes and I think in some places that is going to be disastrous. I would hope that we can maintain all our arts institutions, but I know that is not a very realistic view.”

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