In our latest post on highlights from the Agenda for Later Life 2011 report we reflect on the three key governing principles of the coalition government so far: deficit reduction; localism and the ‘Big Society’; and radical structural reform.
From the day that the Coalition Agreement was published in May 2010, it became evident that the new administration would be founded on a set of strong governing principles. The Government’s overriding priority has been its total commitment to eradicating the budget deficit within five years. The Spending Review was a mixed bag for people in later life. The headlines were mainly positive, particular with respect to spending areas most directly associated with later life, with protection for the NHS and key age-specific entitlements.
But behind the scenes, it was clear that everyone in later life would be hit hard as the heaviest users of public services in general. In particular, local government in England faces a transformation, as it loses 26 per cent of its central government grant over the period 2011/12 to 2014/15, with poorer areas the worst affected. As councils have announced their budgets in recent months, it has become clear that vital services for later life will be hit hard. There are also concerning changes to social security benefits, including cuts to Local Housing Allowance, Council Tax Benefit and Employment Support Allowance (paid to people in their 50s and early 60s).
A hugely significant long-term change was the surprise decision to switch social security uprating from the Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index, which almost always increases at a lower rate since it excludes housing. While this will not affect the basic State Pension or Pension Credit Guarantee, all other benefits, as well as many occupational pensions will now be lower in the future. For example, if CPI remains around 0.9 per cent lower than RPI over time, the Pension Policy Institute calculates that by the time a 65-year-old with a public-sector occupational pension reaches 85, he or she can expect to be receiving 8 per cent less income, from all sources, than if today’s system were preserved.
The second major theme of the Government is its commitment to the overlapping concepts of ‘localism’ and ‘the Big Society’. Although these terms are much debated, the Government’s agenda breaks down roughly into four dimensions:
- a continuation of Tony Blair’s commitment to opening up public services to independent providers, but with an increased emphasis on the potential of non-profit and employee-owned operators
- accelerated devolution of power from Whitehall and the English regions to local level
- a commitment to giving citizens more say over public decisions, and the ability to run services and amenities if they wish
- a desire to see a surge in autonomous community activity, charitable delivery and philanthropy.
So far the most concrete manifestation of these principles have been the Localism Bill and the removal of almost all ring-fencing from local government funding. However, localism and Big Society should be thought of as principles that inform all policy thinking, rather than a specific list of activities.
Many of the Government’s intentions are laudable, although it remains to be seen whether the strategy that ministers are adopting really can succeed in influencing deep-seated social behaviours or in changing the institutional norms of the public sector. But the flurry of enthusiasm and piecemeal initiatives may be sidestepping the need for a fundamental debate about the role of the state. The philosophy of the Big Society is that government should enable communities to solve problems for themselves, rather than impose answers. The lines of responsibility between the state and communities are deliberately intended to be fuzzy; and diversity, and indeed failure, is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. This is a fundamental challenge to the traditional statist view, which sees central government as a provider of enforceable entitlements, a guarantor of consistent minimum protection and the main driver of innovation and strategic change. Continue reading “Agenda for Later Life report – 3 coalition principles”