The troubles suffered by poor students demonstrate the harsh reality of public-sector cuts. Think of it as austerity whack-a-mole: Cuts in one area put pressure on others. Take money out of social care, and elderly people get stuck in the hospital. Take money out of welfare, and you get hungry children who can’t learn. Take money out of youth services, and gang and knife crime rises. Everything is connected.
The most striking example of this is the constellation of problems caused by cuts to local councils, which have lost nearly 60 percent of the funding that the central government previously gave them. The knock-on effects can be seen across the public realm: Six hundred youth clubs have closed in the past decade; 800 libraries have gone; public-health measures, such as anti-smoking campaigns and nutritional awareness, were excluded from the “ring fence” that protected the NHS budget during austerity, resulting in avoidable illnesses costing the health service billions of pounds. “We spend more on obesity than on the police, the judiciary, and the fire service combined,” the Labour politician Stella Creasy told me. “A sugar tax is nowhere near where we need to be.” Plans to give councils more powers—to set their own business tax rates, for example, or experiment with basic income—were a casualty of the Brexit black hole.
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It is reasonable to ask: If public services are under such strain, then why has the Conservative party just been reelected for a fourth term? If there really is a crisis, why haven’t people noticed—and punished those responsible at the ballot box? “What local councils increasingly do is focus on the most vulnerable in society,” Adam Lent, the director of the independent New Local Government Network think-tank, told me. “Those people most definitely have noticed. If you go to the most poor parts of the country, community centers are closing, libraries are closing. Disabled adults, vulnerable adults, people who need lots of social care, have been hit—but that’s not the majority.”
Frances Crook of the Howard League, which campaigns on penal reform, took a similar view. She told me that the public service most likely to provoke a full-scale political crisis for the government was emergency medicine—people waiting longer than they would have before for an ambulance, and then yet more time to be seen by a doctor. “If you’re middle class, you can buy your way out of everything else,” she said. In her own arena, Crook hoped the government would be “radical” about reforming the criminal-justice system, rather than merely building more jails.
Health care, education, local services, prison reform—these are just a selection of the policy areas vying for Boris Johnson’s attention, competing with reactive decisions such as the future of the High Speed 2 rail project, and his aide Dominic Cummings’s desire to reform the government itself, abolishing and merging ministries. Finding extra money for pet projects will be even tougher, because Johnson has promised no rises in three big sources of revenue: sales tax, income tax, and national insurance. The chancellor Sajid Javid has already asked departments to identify 5 percent cuts ahead of the Budget in March.