The government’s deal with the DUP has come in for a lot of criticism recently – but I actually think it’s a good sign. It shows that the intellectual arguments for austerity are finished, and that the country is ready, and indeed, is demanding, to move on.
Like anyone, I have doubts over the timing and nature of Theresa May’s sudden conversion to investment in public services, but I don’t think we are well-served by complaining about it, or attacking the DUP. The DUP fought their corner, fought for their constituents, and won £1bn of valuable money for health, education and infrastructure. It’s now up to us to do the same for our communities.
We can win this fight, because we have already won the argument. The country believes that we need to put more money our public services. People are tired of cuts, as their impact comes vividly into view. Indeed, they told us as much last year when they voted to leave the European Union, and again this month when they took away the Conservative majority.
Now, the government is seeing the consequences: they know that once the ideas of austerity have been abandoned in Northern Ireland, the call for justice for the rest of the country will be irresistible.
There is a special case for investment in Northern Ireland to support the peace process after years of neglect during the Troubles, so I’m not suggesting we ask for £33bn (the amount Great Britain would be due if money were distributed based on population size). Yet if Northern Ireland needs more nurses, so too does England and so too does Wales. If rural Ulster needs better broadband, so does rural Cornwall and rural Scotland.
We are all part of the UK, and this government has claimed a mandate to represent the whole country. It should act accordingly, and all nations and all cities access to the opportunities which public investment brings.
As a start, it can address the crisis in our NHS and social care, as it appears to have done in Northern Ireland. The Chancellor’s most recent budget only partially addressed the £2bn funding gap in social care – this is an opportunity to fill it in full. The NHS is also struggling with record financial deficits amid unprecedented demand for its services – this is an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure.
The NHS’ Five Year Forward View set out a minimum level of investment – £ 8bn – which the health service would require. David Cameron’s government provided that bare minimum, but still required the NHS to meet an extraordinary efficiency savings target of £22bn. This is an opportunity to bring that target down to a more manageable level.
The government can also offer support to local authorities in Great Britain, as it has done through city deals in Northern Ireland. Councils have borne cuts of up to 40 per cent over the past few years. Real services which matter to real people have suffered – housing, bin collections, and social care to name a few. The LGA has estimated that local government faces an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020 – this is an opportunity to fill that gap in full.
The government has made life difficult for itself in a few cases, and should take the chance to avoid a few scrapes. Schools cuts, for instance, make no sense, and I hope and expect that Conservative MPs will join Labour colleagues and council leaders of all parties to prevent them. The public sector pay cap is another issue I hope they will soon revisit. I hope really that ministers see this deal with the DUP as a chance to do some fresh thinking, and realise that the problems of 2017 can’t be answered by George Osborne’s political games from 2010.
In the end, it’s not about the politics – we just want a fair deal for the whole country.
Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 21 mid-sized cities.
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