THE DECISION by George Osborne to boost NHS spending by a further £2bn a year in his Autumn Statement does appear, at face value, to be good politics. It is effectively a pre-emptive strike to negate the likelihood of embarrassing headlines about health spending during the critical winter months when demand for hospital beds is, invariably, at its greatest.
As an electoral tactician, the Chancellor knows that the NHS will be Labour’s one – and only – line of attack prior to polling day next May and using fines levied on rate-rigging banks to also pay for improvements to GP services is a populist move which outflanks the Opposition. However, Mr Osborne still has to prove that this move is equally good economics after claiming that Wednesday’s speech, which will set many of the parameters for the next election, will not included “unfunded giveaways”.
For, while the Chancellor maintains that he can afford this NHS windfall in addition to the £7bn of tax cuts outlined in his party conference speech because the economy is outperforming expectations, levels of borrowing are still higher than the official forecasts. Is Mr Osborne seriously suggesting that there are not further management efficiencies to be accrued from the health service?
And then there is the question of the deficit – Mr Osborne admitted yesterday that it has only been cut by a third and that there is still an extraordinary amount of work to do before Britain can pay off its debts. What he was less keen to say is that his spending decisions will, in all likelihood, mean even greater cuts in those Whitehall departments whose budgets have not been ring-fenced. There was one report yesterday that responsibility for the future funding of flood defences will be passed from Defra to those local councils who are already facing significant financial challenges of their own.
As such, it would be disingenuous of the Chancellor to accuse Labour of unspecified undertakings unless he, too, provides greater clarity on how the extra money for the NHS and promised new roads is going to be funded at a time when the deficit is so high. Anything less will undermine Mr Osborne’s hard-earned reputation for financial discipline.
The way forward? Power and local accountability
many will be encouraged that Tory grandee Lord Heseltine is taking an active role in talks to broker a deal over the devolution of Whitehall powers and money to Yorkshire. He was a politician who was ahead of his time 35 years ago when he identified the untapped potential of the North’s decaying industrial heartlands and his passion, and enthusiasm, for this issue has helped the Government to recognise the need to empower the English regions as unprecedented powers are passed to Holyrood.
However the former deputy prime minister’s challenge now is coming up with the most effective way of making the most of this opportunity. Voters in Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield rejected Boris Johnson-style elected mayors in 2012 – taxpayers appear sceptical about the creation of another tier of local government – while greater collaboration between councils, and the network of bodies that have been set up in recent times to champion growth in these parts, is still in its infancy.
Yet it is also paramount that the Government’s solution does include total transparency. Council and business leaders should not expect to receive unprecedented sums of public money unless they are prepared to be held accountable for their decisions. After all, ineffective oversight was one reason why the Tories were so keen to abolish regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward in the first place.
The Balding factor: Viewers and listeners come first
CLARE BALDING is right – female broadcasters should be judged by their talent rather than their appearance – and she is to be applauded for saying that she will never choose fashion outfits which detract from her work.
Yet this is not the only reason that Ms Balding became a ‘national treasure’ following her acclaimed broadcasts at the Olympics and Paralympics as well as her lifelong passion for horse racing. She has a great empathy with her subjects – whether it be world-famous competitors or unassuming individuals who she meets during her Radio Four series Ramblings.
It is a key distinction. There are too many broadcasters, male and female, who believe they’re the most important person. They’re not. It is the viewer and the listener, and Ms Balding is among a select few to recognise this.