The damning numbers that reveals how much damage austerity is still wreaking today

A new report looks at years of short-term decision-making and paints a gloomy picture of the UK's public services.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 1:  British Prime Minister and Conservative party leader David Cameron (L) and British Finance Minister George Osborne visit the Marston's Brewery on April 1, 2015 in Wolverhampton, England. The visit was part of the Conservative Party's campaign, in the run-up to the general election on May 7. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
David Cameron and George Osborne were the architects of austerity. (Getty)

Public services are creaking - but that’s just the awful legacy left by the pandemic, isn’t it?

Not according to a new report which describes how the problems in the NHS, care services and your local neighbourhood started well over a decade ago.

Hannah Fearn unpacks the numbers.

Why are we talking about "austerity" again? Yes, we know former Chancellor George Osborne left government seven years ago, but a damning new report by the Institute for Government think tank has shown how the Conservative austerity agenda - implemented 13 years ago when the coalition government first came to power - played an important part in the "crumbling" state of public services today. And a global pandemic in 2020 didn’t help, either.

What did the researchers find? That the UK’s "dire" public services are performing worse than they did before the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, and far worse than they were when the Conservatives took office - just two years after a global financial downturn. They also noted underinvestment that started in 2010 means they are now trapped in a "doom loop".

Sounds bad! It gets worse. The report came to a devastating conclusion - and one that likely resonates with voters in the middle of a cost of living crisis: "The public is experiencing first-hand the consequences of successive governments’ short-term policy making, with decades of under-investment in capital having a serious impact on the productivity of public services. Teachers, nurses, doctors and social workers work in crumbling and cramped buildings and many services are experiencing a full-blown workforce crisis."

So which public services came out worst? You probably won’t be surprised to see the NHS at the top of the list. The hospital elective waiting list has risen to 7.8 million, compared with 4.6 million before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – while only just over half of those attending A&E are admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours. GPs are also struggling with reduced funding for their services: a quarter of GPs under 30 left the role in the year to March 2023.

GPs under 30 are leaving the NHS in droves. (Institute of Government)
GPs under 30 are leaving the NHS in droves. (Institute of Government)

That’s bad news. Any others? The court system is in crisis too. The Crown Court backlog had a record 64,709 cases listed in June 2023, although the researchers said the complexity of these most serious criminal cases meant that the system is actually stuck with an "effective backlog" of 89,937. The government’s investment in the problem has been erratic: spending on courts in England and Wales declined by 23.4% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, then increased by 20% between 2017/18 and 2021/22, before falling by 10% again in 2022/23.

The court system is struggling. (Institute for Government)
The court system is struggling. (Institute for Government)

OK, but luckily I don’t need the courts right now. What am I likely to notice? Council services including libraries, roads, homelessness and planning were all cut back during the austerity years and extra spending since the pandemic has not yet improved the situation for all these struggling services. A poorly paid and demoralised workforce "may struggle to improve service performance", the researchers said. Councils have lost a quarter of their staff in the last decade.

I thought social care was the biggest problem? Adult social care is in crisis with some users exposed to "catastrophic care costs" and others denied publicly funded care by a means test that has not been updated since 2010 despite the economy being in a very different place today. Children’s services are also under pressure: the number of children in care has risen by 27% since the Tories first took power.

The number of children in social care has risen by 27%. (Institute for Government)
The number of children in social care has risen by 27%. (Institute for Government)

This is so bleak. Is anything at all improving? Surprisingly, the police. Although public trust in policing plummeted after a string of high-profile professional misconduct cases, police forces have seen a big funding increase in recent years which appears to have offset pressures on the service. Overall crime is at "historic lows", and despite declining for a decade the number of charges actually increased by 43% last year. The service is also meeting its recruitment targets.

Lots of these services are run by local councils. Are they angry about this report? No, they’re furious at the government for its lack of support for their essential work. In a statement, Councillor Pete Marland of the Local Government Association, told Yahoo News UK, that "the easy savings have long since gone". He added: "Councils are being faced with tough decisions about cutting valued services, increasing council tax and fees and charges during a cost-of-living crisis." He urged Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to "act to address the acute financial challenges faced by councils" saying that would be "vital to protect the local services our communities rely on every day."

What does this mean for the general election next year? Voters have noticed the way public services are stretched to breaking point under the Tories but Sir Keir Starmer has already refused to commit to greater public spending if his Labour party wins.