Essential public services breaking down, report warns

Performance tracker highlights “dire state” of public services, amid predictions they are set to decline further
The report highlighted crumbling concrete as an example of the issues public services are facing. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

30 Oct 2023

Key public services are “crumbling” as a result of decades of underinvestment, the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy have warned.

In a new report released today, they state: “Public services that have for years been creaking are now crumbling.

This is the result of “successive governments’ short-term policy making”, with governments having “underinvested in capital across all public services for more than half a century", the report states.

The issue of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete is cited as a case in point, with “tight capital budgets” having “prevented departments from replacing buildings constructed using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete”. The report adds: “For example, in 2020 DfE requested funding to rebuild and refurbish around 200 schools a year but was only granted funding for a quarter of that."

The performance tracker reviewed the state of nine public services – general practice, hospitals, adult social care, children’s social care, neighbourhood services, schools, police, criminal courts and prisons.

It found that the underinvestment in capital has had “a serious impact on the productivity of public services,” according to the report. “Teachers, nurses, doctors and social workers find it much harder to do their jobs in crumbling and cramped buildings, when using old computers running out- of-date software or lacking the latest equipment."

The report warned: “In the absence of serious action to improve public service productivity, the government risks getting stuck in a ‘doom loop’, with the perpetual state of crisis burning out staff and preventing services from taking the best long-term decisions."

With the exception of children’s social care, which is about the same, the public services “are performing worse now than they were in 2019/20" and criminal courts and hospitals, which have record backlogs, “are in serious trouble”.

Taking commitments into account  foreign aid and defence and the funding needed for the NHS long-term workforce plan, “unprotected areas of public spending” face cuts “averaging -1.2% per year in real terms” after 2025, the report found. This means it is “likely” that all services other than children’s social care will perform worse in 2027-28 than on the eve of the pandemic.

The report recommends that new multi-year budgets be set for public services, at levels that are “sufficient to enable politically sustainable performance levels without emergency top-ups”. It also calls for a long-term capital programme to improve public sector buildings, equipment and IT.

In addition, it says a “stable long-term policy agenda, with far less churn among both ministers and officials” is needed, while the relationship with public sector workers needs to be “reset” through improvements to pay negotiations, workforce planning, and working conditions.

IfG programme director Nick Davies, one of the authors of the report, warned: “Public services are in a dire state and will likely deteriorate further if whoever forms the next government sticks to current spending plans.”

He said: “Improvements are possible but difficult decisions will be necessary to break out of the negative cycle of short-termism that has characterised government decision making, particularly in recent years.”

And Rob Whiteman, chief executive, CIPFA, said: “After a year of significant political and economic turmoil, the public sector is crying out for a shift to longer-term planning, rather than the short-term thinking that has been a central feature of recent policy making.”

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: "Total departmental spending will be around £100 billion higher by 2027/28 than it was at the start of this Parliament after inflation is taken into account, with record numbers of staff currently working in the NHS and more police officers than ever before."

They added: "Reducing debt remains a priority for this government. We must break out of the cycle of ever-more spending to avoid tax increases for working people, which is why we are accelerating reform so that frontline workers can focus on what they do best: teach our children, treat us when we’re sick and keep us safe.”

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