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Spending cuts looming for Wales whoever wins the election, says report

26 Jun 2024 11 minute read
Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Martin Shipton

The Welsh Government will be forced to make cuts whether the general election is won by the Conservatives or Labour, according to a detailed analysis of the parties’ spending plans by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.

In a report published today, academics Guto Ifan and Dr Ed Gareth Poole write :”Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos largely maintain the trajectory of existing UK Government spending plans. If these plans are implemented as intended by the manifestos, the Welsh Government would face serious budgetary challenges.

“It would have to implement further deep cuts to non-protected spending areas to fund increases to health spending.

“Under Conservative plans, the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 0.8% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Assuming the Welsh Government directly “passes on” consequentials from NHS and schools spending in England, a further £870m of funding would be required by 2028-29 to avoid real-terms cuts to non-protected areas of spending.

“Under Labour’s plans, the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 1.1% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Again assuming the Welsh Government directly passes on health and education consequentials, an additional £248m of funding would be required in 2025-26 to avoid real term cuts to non-protected spending areas, a gap which would grow to £683m by 2028-29.

“It is unclear therefore how these plans would fulfill the promise of “no return to austerity” under Labour. The additional consequential spending for Wales projected from the 2024 Labour manifesto amounts to just 5% of the consequential spending included in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.”

Capital spending

They add:“Welsh Government capital spending – which funds multi-year infrastructure projects such as school building, roads and hospital building – will also be cut in real terms under both parties’ manifesto plans. Under existing plans, the block grant for capital spending is set to fall by 7.7% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29.

“The Labour manifesto contains additional investment spending under the Green Prosperity Plan, worth some £60m per year for the Welsh Government. This would still however see the Welsh Government’s capital budget falling by 5% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29.

“Crucially, both parties’ plans are highly dependent on a swift return to economic growth. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour intend to loosen the current Chancellor’s fiscal rules, and both parties have also ruled out increases to the main revenue-raising taxes.

“These pledges will seriously limit the next government’s ability to pump additional resources into public services. Moreover, the outlook for the public finances is underpinned by Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the economy, and for the resulting tax receipts, and these forecasts are significantly more optimistic than those of the Bank of England and the IMF.

Projections

Mr Ifan and Dr Poole say their baseline projections for the Welsh Government are based on the indicative UK Government spending plans announced at the 2024 Spring Budget. Since detailed departmental spending plans and implied consequentials beyond 2024-25 were not provided, there is the need to make a series of assumptions on how the UK Government likely intended to allocate spending to different departments.

The report states: “Under these assumptions, and using the latest devolved tax and Block Grant Adjustment forecasts, we project that the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would grow by an average of 0.9% per year in real terms (ie after accounting for inflation), between 2024-25 and 2028-29.

“If the Welsh Government decided to directly ‘pass on’ consequentials that would be triggered for the Welsh budget from additional health and education spending in England, this would mean:

* The NHS budget growing by 3.2% per year in real terms (which would be below likely spending pressures);

* The Local Government resource settlement falling by an average of 1.1% per year in real terms;

* All other spending areas falling by an average of 1.7% per year in real terms. If the Welsh Government also decided to allocate consequentials from the Childcare announcements in England on to a similar offer in Wales, then the cuts across other spending areas would be larger, at 2.4%.

“Under this baseline scenario, the Welsh Government would face immediate budgetary challenges, having to implement steep cuts to particular areas of spending in order to fund increased health spending. This would continue a long-standing trend of non-protected funding being cut back. When the Welsh Government published its Draft Budget for 2024-25, it found cuts of £422m in its spending plans outside the NHS and Transport for Wales. This pattern now means that spending outside the health service this year is about 10% lower in real terms than what it was in 2010.

“We estimate that matching NHS spending pledges for England would require an additional £249m of funding in 2025-26 to avoid real terms cuts in non-protected spending areas of the Welsh budget next year. This gap would increase to £687m by 2028-29.”

Unchanged

Analysing the Tory plans, the report states: “The Conservative manifesto has left existing plans for spending on public services largely unchanged, topping up spending by just £500m by the end of the decade. New spending commitments are made for defence and the NHS, funded largely through cuts to the Civil Service, cutting spending on consultants, and making unspecified ‘quango efficiencies’.

“The precise implications for the Welsh Government of these commitments are unknowable, as no detail is provided on where or how these cuts will be made. Assuming that ‘back office’ spending cuts are implemented across all departments equally, we project that growth in the Welsh Government budget will be slightly lower than the levels implied by our baseline plans, averaging 0.8% per year.

“If the Welsh Government again decided to directly ‘pass on’ the implied increases to NHS England spending in the Conservative manifesto to the health budget in Wales, this would result in steeper cuts in non-protected spending elsewhere in the budget, averaging 2.2% per year in real terms.

“In total, under Conservative plans, the Welsh Government would need some £870m of additional funding to avoid real terms cuts to non-protected spending areas by 2028-29.”

Top-up

On the Labour manifesto plans, the report states: “The Labour manifesto promises a top-up to existing spending plans of close to £5bn by 2028-29, and these are focussed primarily on health and education spending. These commitments would trigger approximately £195m of additional consequential spending for the Welsh budget by 2028-29.

“But in the context of the projected £23bn Welsh budget for day-to-day spending, this additional spending would not significantly alter the planned trajectory for the total Welsh budgetary ‘envelope’. Compared with the 0.9% per year real terms increases provided in the baseline assumptions outlined above, under the Labour manifesto the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by 1.1% per year on average in real terms, just 0.2 percentage points higher than current Conservative government spending plans.

“Despite the slight increase in funding compared with the baseline scenario, the Welsh Government would still find future budget rounds very difficult. Because of the clear-cut nature of the health and education pledges in the Labour manifesto, we again assume that the (Labour) Welsh Government would directly ‘pass on’ any additional consequentials from above-baseline NHS and schools spending in England.

“Because the two major party manifestos focus their relatively small spending commitments on the health service, this would imply that Welsh NHS spending would increase by 3.4% per year in real terms to 2028-29. The Local Government settlement, with additional funding allocated for schools spending), would fall by 0.7% per year in real terms. The budget outlook is so tight in this scenario that all other spending areas would need to be cut by 1.7% per year in real terms.

“An additional £248m of funding would be required in 2025-26 to avoid these real terms cuts to all non-protected spending areas, which include rail, bus and road transport; business support; communities and regeneration; arts, culture and sport; and housing and homelessness. This gap would increase to £683m by 2028-29. The implied scale of these budget cuts to services outside the Welsh NHS does not align with Rachel Reeves’ pledge that there ‘will not be a return to austerity’ under an incoming Labour government.

“In both budgetary and policy terms, the Labour 2024 manifesto stands in stark contrast to its 2019 forerunner. Labour’s promised additional consequentials for day-to-day spending in 2024 amount to just 5% of the forecasted consequentials from 2019, without any adjustment for inflation. The pledges in the 2024 manifesto are similar in magnitude to the forecasted consequentials from the 2019 Conservative manifesto.”

Difficult 

Turning to capital spending, the report states: “It is not only in day-to-day spending that the Welsh Government budget faces a difficult outlook. Indicative spending plans for departmental capital budgets were frozen in cash terms over the next five years – implying significant real terms cuts.

“There are no additional consequentials for investment spending in the Conservative manifesto plans. The Welsh Government capital block grant would therefore be set to fall by 7.7% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29, on top of a steep fall this year.

“The Labour manifesto contains additional investment spending under the Green Prosperity Plan. We estimate additional consequentials from this spending at £60m per year for the Welsh Government. But the scale of this investment is dwarfed by the already pencilled-in real terms cuts to capital spending in the current government’s spending plans. In addition to our assumptions of additional NHS capital spending, even after Green Prosperity Plan spending the Welsh Government’s capital budget would fall by approximately 5% in real terms between 2024-25 and 2028-29.”

Growth

Considering whether growth in the economy will come to the rescue, Mr Ifan and Dr Poole write: “Recall that neither the Conservatives nor Labour have pledged to loosen the fiscal rules imposed by the current Chancellor, and that both parties have ruled out increases to the main revenue-raising taxes such as income tax, national insurance contributions and VAT. This means that any scope for changing these post-election spending forecasts therefore largely depends on the outlook for economic growth, which influences tax receipts and affects many areas of public spending such as universal credit.

“The Labour Party argues that the scope for public spending increases will be improved by stronger economic growth. But the public finances outlook that underpins all these projections are the economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility. As has been noted elsewhere, the OBR’s forecasts are already significantly more optimistic than most other forecasters, including the Bank of England and the IMF. Changing the spending outlook without changing taxes or borrowing will therefore require a sharp break from the UK’s dismal growth trajectory since the financial crisis of 2008.”

‘Conspiracy of silence’

The report concludes: “In the final furlong of the 2024 campaign, the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies took the unusual step of directly criticising the major parties for avoiding the difficult questions on tax and spending that will face the UK after the general election. This ‘conspiracy of silence’ obscures the reality of a sluggish economy and serious budgetary challenges that will face the next government.

“In this brief report, we have explored how the modest campaign pledges for health and education in the Labour and Conservative manifestos would impact the Welsh budget via the Barnett formula. Because of the almost singular focus on NHS spending pledges by the two major parties, the budgetary envelope for public services overall remains broadly in line with the extremely tight spending plans of the incumbent Conservative government.

“Both parties’ decision to broadly maintain current spending trajectories presents significant challenges for the Welsh Government. The Conservative plan would increase the Welsh budget by just 0.8% annually in real terms, and if NHS England consequentials are directly passed on to the Welsh NHS this would necessitate an additional £870m by 2028-29 to avoid cuts to non-protected areas of the budget. Labour’s plan proposes a slightly higher increase of 1.1% per year, but this remains just 0.2 percentage points higher than the current government’s spending plans.

“If implemented, an extra £248m in 2025-26 and £683m by 2028-29 would be needed to prevent real-term cuts to areas such as rail, bus and road transport; business support; communities and regeneration; arts, culture and sport; and housing and homelessness.

“Finally, both parties’ plans imply real-term cuts in capital spending, further straining the Welsh Government’s ability to spend on new schools, hospitals, and transport infrastructure. Because both parties have ruled out increases to all the major taxes and have pledged to adhere to strict fiscal rules, the feasibility of these plans hinges on a rapid return to economic growth: an area in which the UK has continuously struggled since the financial crisis of 2008.

“Even with a change of governing party at Westminster, upcoming Welsh budget rounds therefore promise to be no less difficult than they have been in recent years.”


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Linda Jones
Linda Jones
23 days ago

Yet more evidence that our politicians are all singing to the same dysfunctional monetarist theme tune. Given the tory destruction of the UK we need a government with courage and vision committed to investing in Wales and the UK. Quantative easing for the country and its people not the banks. We do mot need a tory mark 2.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
23 days ago

This election has got to be one of the most depressing I have ever lived through. Does anybody have any good news, please?

Jon_S
Jon_S
23 days ago

Perhaps they could shelve the scheduled increase in the number of Senedd members to offset. But, I forgot, jobs for the boys.

Old Curmudgeon
Old Curmudgeon
23 days ago
Reply to  Jon_S

I was wondering how the extra cost of the proposed increase in the Senedd are going to help sort this mess out. We appear to be out of money and spending more on increasing a government that is a bit of a laughing stock doesn’t seem a sensible decision.

Adrian
Adrian
23 days ago
Reply to  Jon_S

…and abolish every public sector non-job with the words diversity, inclusion, equality, or gender in the title.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
23 days ago

It’s a popular myth that government debt is a bad thing. It’s a fact that the UK government does not need to issue debt. In the modern era of money the Bank of England can create any amount of money that the government requires without having to borrow or tax a penny of the sum in question. That is because all money is now, as a matter of fact, created out of thin air when banks lend money, including when the Bank of England lends directly to the Treasury. This is because all money is debt: if in doubt read… Read more »

CapM
CapM
22 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

I bet the down voters didn’t read past the first couple of sentences.

Adrian
Adrian
23 days ago

Milton Friedman once said that, if you put a government department in charge of the Sahara desert, within five years there’d be a shortage of sand.

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