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‘Austerity is a False Economy that has Brought the Nation’s Roof Crumbling Down’

The collapsing school buildings scandal has exposed how the Government failed to ‘fix the roof while the sun was shining’

Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and George Osborne. Photomontage: PA/AP/Alamy

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“You have to fix the roof when the sun is shining”, former Chancellor George Osborne told the country back in 2010.

Thirteen years later, and in more than 100 schools across the country, teachers are scrambling to find alternative accommodation for thousands of children after their school roofs were found to be at critical risk of collapse.

The scandal, which is predicted to affect up to 1,110 schools across the country, is the result of years of what the Auditor General of the National Audit Office on Tuesday called a “sticking plaster” approach to maintaining schools.

At the head of this approach is the Prime Minister himself, who as Chancellor rejected requests from the Department for Education to rebuild 200 affected schools a year, limiting rebuilds to just 50.

That rejection has helped lead to thousands of children facing what the NAO describes as a “critical risk to life” should they remain in their current buildings.

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False Economies

The scandal is just the most obvious example of the reckless and self-defeating approach taken by this Government to the public sector.

Since 2010, it has cut infrastructure spending as a share of GDP by a third as a part of Osborne’s supposed plan to “fix the roof” of the nation’s public finances. 

Yet rather than put the country in a better shape, as Osborne promised, the Conservatives’ austerity agenda has merely increased the overall financial burden now facing the public sector.

Far from helping to ‘balance the books’, this short-term approach has in fact meant that schools are being forced to spend even more on emergency repairs and alternative accommodation than they would have done had the repairs been funded in advance.

As the NAO’s chief Gareth Davies puts it, “failure to bite this bullet leads to poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking plaster approach”.

With the Government’s capital spending since 2010 weighted towards the NHS and other more politically sensitive parts of the public sector, the impact on schools has been even greater than it would otherwise been had the cuts been more evenly spread.

The net result is an increasingly tired and, in the case of schools and many other public buildings, dangerously dilapidated public realm. The cost of fixing this, which is now likely to fall largely under the responsibility of whichever government follows this one, will almost certainly be far greater than had the Government simply made the necessary repairs and investments in advance.

Although crumbling school roofs is the most visible and politically toxic example of this approach, similar results can be found right across the public realm.

Whether its cuts to family support schemes, leading to record numbers being driven into far more expensive social care; or cuts to legal aid, leading to increased family breakdowns putting even more strain on the public purse, there are dozens examples of austerity actually increasing overall costs in the long term.

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A Different Approach

Over time, these individual false economies collectively have a large effect.

Since 2010, Britain’s economy has stagnated, in part because of the “sticking plaster” approach to public investment. Rather than invest in the public realm during a time when interest rates were at recent historic lows, while creating jobs and future prosperity, successive Conservative governments have instead cut capital budgets, estate rebuilding programmes, and new infrastructure projects.

This approach has led to the UK economy now being, as some studies suggest, around £100 billion smaller than it otherwise would have been had the Government taken a different approach.

There is an opportunity for an incoming Labour government to take a very different approach. However, it is unclear to what extent Keir Starmer’s party is willing to.

In multiple speeches and interviews, the Labour Leader has criticised exactly the same ‘sticking plaster’ approach today singled out by the head of the NAO. However, despite identifying the problem, Starmer and his shadow ministers have been heavily resistant to committing to the individual investments that are required to actually fixing it.

Even now, as schools across the country are being shut down, Labour is refusing to commit to the scale of rebuilds that even the Government now acknowledges are needed.

The cause of this reluctance is rooted in a desire not to be ‘trapped’ into making spending commitments that will allow the Conservatives to claim a Labour government would cause a ‘tax bombshell’ to hit taxpayers. Yet, by refusing to make the case for the kind of investment which will be required after a decade of neglect under the Conservatives, Starmer is missing the chance to make the case for a very different and necessary approach.

When George Osborne promised to “fix the roof when the sun is shining”, he managed to persuade the country that making big cuts to public spending was the responsible and prudent approach. In reality, the cuts that started in 2010 have left large parts of society and the public realm in desperate straits and left his successors with far bigger bills to pay than they otherwise would have had.

But, far from facing up to this reality, Rishi Sunak’s Government continues to insist it has taken exactly the right approach. The challenge now for the Labour Party is to spell out why this is wrong and exactly what it plans to do differently.

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