JBP Election Guide: Public Services and Infrastructure
28 April 2015, Blog
The Future of Public Services
Unlike with the National Health Service where political debate has largely focused on who is going to spend more money on it, the rest of the UK’s public services have had no such privilege.
With health ring-fenced, the military to some extent protected, and education ‘politically difficult’ to cut, the spending picture for ‘the rest’ is only likely to worsen.
The Fire Service has already seen stations close across the country, pensions reduced, and forced retirements across the board. There have already been several threatened strikes over the course of this Parliament and several protests outside the Palace of Westminster in recent years. Regardless of which colour or shade of government is formed after May the plight of the firefighters is unlikely to change.
The Ministry of Justice and the prisons and probation service it oversees are also likely to come in for a hard knock. The prison “privatisations” under the Coalition have not been popular, but have started to save money. In the event of a Labour government, despite their recent protestations, it is unlikely that they would look to roll back private prison ownership. The one exception is the probation services which might find themselves back in public hands should Mr Miliband take the reins.
British policing has been one of the few areas in party politics where you can actually draw discernible distinctions between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Whilst the Conservatives are keen to keep their flagship policy of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (inaugurated in 2012), the Liberal Democrats and Labour have both pledged to do away with them.
However, regardless of whether they’re being run by a single official or a board of councillors, there’s one thing for sure; the police are going to face further dramatic cuts.
Partly the victims of their own success, the police have managed to successfully cut back office functions whilst maintaining the frontline, and seeing an overall fall in crime. This makes them ripe targets for more spending cuts. As crime increasingly moves online even the more traditional calls for ‘boots on the ground’ community policing will lessen, leaving the boys in blue all the more exposed.
Infrastructure and Planning
Build, build and build some more. A lack of homes and contentious energy and transport projects have dominated the political narrative surrounding infrastructure and planning over the last five years.
To name just a few examples – the debates around the future of nuclear power stations, fracking, off shore wind, Thames Tideway tunnel, HS2 and Crossrail have focused political debate around how the UK grapples with, funds, and builds major infrastructure projects. There is an acceptance amongst all parties in Westminster that something must be done to make sure that large scale infrastructure projects do not suffer a lack of investment because of political uncertainty. But there is no agreement on what that “something” should be. Labour’s response has been to propose a national infrastructure commission that would be a cross-party group that oversees major infrastructure projects. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have rejected this idea – pointing out that the Coalition’s National Infrastructure Plan – which is updated regularly – provides the certainty required.
This might disappoint London Mayor Boris Johnson who has been touted as wanting a role as a Secretary of State for Infrastructure in a new “Super Ministry” when he returns to Parliament in May 2015.
The necessity to build more homes continues to get locked in the perennial debate – where to build them? There seems to be political unity on the matter that some Green Belt land will have to be used to build more homes but the issue still remains a complex political one. Then there is the question of Help to Buy – a politically contentious scheme that the Conservatives have championed but the Liberal Democrats and Labour have both criticised as being the wrong approach to solving the housing crisis.
The debate around fracking is perhaps the best example in recent years of the political tension that can easily boil over. The Localism Act was sold to the public as granting local people the power to approve or reject development in their local area. Yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer has an ill-disguised fondness for pursuing a “Dash for Shale” and has tried to bring in financial incentives to drive this agenda forward.
Political unity does currently exist on perhaps the most important infrastructure issue that the next Government will face – Heathrow or Gatwick. The Davies Commission is due to report in the summer and both the Conservatives and Labour have committed to implementing its verdict. It will be interesting to see, if there is another coalition, whether this political unity holds up.