As the constitutional battle intensifies, public services are becoming collateral damage. The Brexit frenzy, combined with preparations for a general election, has torpedoed the chances of any semblance of financial stability returning to government spending.
The chancellor, Sajid Javid, will present a one-year public spending round on 4 September instead of planning for the usual three-year review. This will give departments short-term funding once the current spending plans come to an end in March 2020.
In political terms, it will position the Conservatives for a general election and allow officials to concentrate on leaving the EU.
But austerity will be far from over, in terms of both the funding provided and the enduring damage caused by previous cuts.
Housing, prisons, culture, and legal aid can expect little respite. The atrophying of the justice system, from funding the courts to the treatment of prisoners, is a scandal pushed to the margins of public policy.
The relaxation of capital spending controls for the NHS makes a good headline but is of little help. Financial famine followed by a splurge of cash is no way to manage billions of pounds of healthcare assets in buildings, equipment and technology. Hospitals and the rest of the NHS need solid capital spending plans that enable them to maintain and upgrade facilities and invest in new kit.
For local government, the financial instability continues. The fair funding review – expected to deliver a shift of money from urban to rural areas – was due to be implemented next April, but is now unlikely before 2021. “Fair” is a subjective term, of course, with deprived city areas likely to be the losers.
More worrying for the long-term, the whole council funding edifice is crumbling. There is near-universal agreement that the current business rate regime is unfit for an era of struggling high streets and out-of-town internet giants, but developing and implementing a solution looks years away – an issue rammed home last week by the housing, communities and local government select committee.
The government plans to change the way business rates are used in the funding system, with councils retaining more of the rates and receiving less government grant, supposedly to incentivise them to spur economic growth. But the proposed system is complicated, opaque and based on highly questionable logic, and runs a severe risk of exacerbating rather than tackling economic inequalities across the country.
Council tax continues to benefit the wealthy while perpetuating the farce that most bills are based on what a home was worth almost 30 years ago. Policy on council tax levels has lurched from rigid central caps on increases to encouraging above inflation rises, in order to paper over the worst of the social care crisis.
Meanwhile, as the select committee MPs point out, spending on planning, development and housing has more than halved since 2010, while funding for highways, transport, cultural and leisure services is down more than 40%. This collapse will continue until there is a government with the wit and courage to find a solution to funding adult social care, which is sucking the cash out of non-statutory services.
On the steps of Downing Street Boris Johnson promised to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”. We’ll see.
Barely days into the job, Javid may be forgiven for not yet addressing problems that have festered for decades. Perhaps next year’s spending review will indeed begin to offer answers.
But the early signs are not promising. This government gives every indication of preferring to skate over complexity and difficulty rather than being straight with the public about the need to make hard choices to secure economic and social progress.