Drowning, not waving

5 Mar 14

The chancellor will no doubt find some additional funding for flood defences in this month’s Budget. Perhaps he should be taking the same approach when it comes to other critical services

In the midst of the recent flooding crisis, Prime Minister David Cameron made the rather rash promise that ‘money is no object’ when it comes to helping families and businesses cope with the extreme weather.

Ministers soon toned down this unexpectedly generous offer, suggesting that there would be no blank cheque. But the principle was clear: money will be found when there is a national emergency to deal with.

Of course, national emergencies come along every now and then. Some of them can be predicted; some of them can even be prevented in advance.

Flooding is a case in point. According to the Committee on Climate Change, the government will have spent £500m less on flood defences than was needed between 2010 and 2014. As a result, the country will suffer £3bn in avoidable flood damage.

Spending £500m to prevent costs of £3bn doesn’t seem a bad investment. And the same argument could be made across the public services – in public health, education, criminal justice and beyond.

Moreover, as Paul Woods points out in this month’s issue, local government funding is itself at crisis levels. A number of councils, he believes, will become unviable if disproportionate cuts to the poorest areas continue.

Woods, director of resources at Newcastle City Council, calls on Chancellor George Osborne to rethink the cuts and head off an impending calamity. But it’s not going to be easy to convince Osborne of the prevention-better-than-cure approach.

As the chancellor contemplates the March 19 Budget, he will be focusing instead on the promise to move to a surplus by the end of the next Parliament should the Conservatives win the 2015 election.

It’s a clever political move – so much so that shadow chancellor Ed Balls has also become a ‘surplus hawk’ (see Emran Mian’s comment article). But is it the right thing to do for the UK economy and society in general?

Moving to a surplus shouldn’t necessarily be the priority, while the economic recovery is still fragile, productivity is flat and many public services are struggling to survive. No doubt Osborne will find some spare cash behind the Treasury’s sofa to fund additional flood-defence spending in the Budget. But perhaps he should be taking the same approach when it comes to other critical public services.

If not, the spending, when it finally comes, could be too little, too late.

Did you enjoy this article?