AFTER the high drama in Westminster, and the real likelihood of a general election next month, Sajid Javid’s spending round today inevitably feels more like an interval than the major set-pieces of political theatre these things usually are.
Certainly, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer was rather overshadowed by the performance of his boss, Boris Johnson, whose own parliamentary debut as Prime Minister is destined to go down in history for all the wrong reasons.
First, he lost his Commons majority, then he lost control of the Common’s agenda to MPs opposed to a no deal Brexit; after that he sacked the 21 Conservatives of the ‘rebel alliance’ who had defied the party whip. The poor show continued with a dismal performance in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
After that, the Chancellor might be forgiven for thinking ‘things can only get better’ as he stood at the Despatch Boxes to present his spending round. They surely couldn’t get any worse.
As it is, Javid’s performance was no disaster; nor was it anything scintillating. This was a workaday presentation, but one clearly angled with an election in mind. This wasn’t lost on the Chancellor’s shadow counterpart, Labour’s John McDonnell, who in his later response called the statement a “grubby electioneering stunt”.
From a housing industry perspective Javid’s spending round is something of a no-show, however it wasn’t entirely bereft of material relevant for the sector. While it got no mention in his speech, the Chancellor used the occasion to reiterate this Government’s commitment to home ownership. Of course, social housing didn’t get a mention.
The Spending Round didn’t bandy numbers, but the full document expressed the Government’s continued support to increase home ownership through the Help to Buy equity loan and other housing programmes, including “providing Homes England additional funding to deliver more homes where people need them”. Which could of course mean anything.
There was a clearer deal when it comes to homelessness, and this aspect did get a mention in Javid’s speech: “On any given night, too many people are sleeping rough on our streets. The human cost of that is too high,” he said. “Today we act — with £54 million of new funding to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping, taking total funding to £422 million. That’s a real-term increase of 13%.”
There’s also an additional £24 million for the Building Safety Programme.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor is putting £106 million into the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), which includes £40 million of additional funding for Discretionary Housing Payments to tackle “affordability pressures in the private rented sector in England and Wales”.
The Chancellor has also allocated a further £23 million for a range of measures, including supporting vulnerable claimants and people with complex needs who are being migrated onto Universal Credit. It will also pay for further “outreach activities” to support those who are homeless.
Overall, the Chancellor has thrown £13.8 billion at public services — long starved by austerity cuts since 2010. This includes some highly populist targets for spending largesse (though no less important for that) such as social care, the NHS, police and others.
“We are turning the page on austerity and beginning a new decade of renewal,” Javid said. “A new economic era needs a new economic plan, and today we lay the foundations with the fastest increase to day-to-day spending for 15 years.”
Perhaps. But it’s anybody’s guess whose hand will be at the tiller as we sail into this alleged new era. This is no spending plan, after all; the Chancellor made that more than clear when he said it was the foundations for a plan. If anything, it is surely more a stop gap, and perhaps not even that.
Javid told the Commons there will be a Budget later this year, but given Johnson’s performance thus far, the political manoeuvres around Brexit, and the likelihood of the country going to the polls, it’s anybody’s guess whether this spending review will be anything more than a scribbled out footnote in the tale of a high-stakes election gamble.