It’s well known that governments are much fonder of dealing with day-to-day ‘events’ than they are of planning for long-term change. But this government not only has an aversion to planning, it seems clueless as to what it might involve. Its much-lauded ‘long-term economic plan’ has resulted in so many missed targets that a full review of government finances has been needed four times (March, July, November and again on March 16) within twelve months, suggesting the plan is not so much long-term as quarterly. Even the government’s most obvious goal of starving public services of funds and cutting the size of the state is simply that, with no road map for how to get there or what public services should be left in place when it does. This was brought home most recently by the LGA’s call for an emergency plan for local government, as over the next five years in many areas it will simply fall apart. What is happening to local government now will happen to other services later, with (presumably) no contingency plans in place, let alone any sort of vision for the role of a smaller state.
By a telling coincidence, it’s not only local government that’s recently asked Cameron for a plan. Examples have come from all sides. For example in social care an emergency is in the offing that has led to the head of the NHS calling for a properly resourced plan to be in place by 2018. Yet government’s response is a bit of half-hearted fire-fighting around the edges, such as the one-year offer to protect housing support services from a devastating cut in income, that in any case only covers part of the threat to their viability. Public health plans are also in disarray because not only has funding been drastically cut, but government hasn’t yet told councils what their budgets are, seven weeks from the start of the financial year.
Another issue is energy, where lack of planning, ham-fisted cuts in subsidies and over-reliance on a dodgy nuclear deal threaten a huge supply gap by 2025. Government is not so much inactive as seemingly unaware that it has any role to play at all, beyond cutting what it thinks are unpopular subsidies for renewables and increasing tax breaks for oil and gas, just as markets (but not government ministers) may be getting the message that fossil fuels have no long-term future. Two other related areas have no discernible plans either – reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty. Both had targets and plans left by the last Labour government, and were the subject of countless ‘strategies’ under the coalition, but are now either given token attention or ignored. (The coalition’s Carbon Plan, published in 2011, was supposed to updated quarterly; the last update was in 2012.)
The existence of a government target isn’t necessarily evidence of any sort of plan to achieve it, of course. The infamous 100,000 per year net migration target is one such, where despite regular rounds of immigration legislation no one seems to have looked into whether any of the new punitive measures might actually work (‘right to rent’ checks by landlords being the latest). The NHS is still beset by targets, but as Jeremy Corbyn made clear in last week’s PMQs, there is a huge gap between these and the resources available to achieve them. Child poverty is to be redefined so that any target becomes meaningless, simply because government actions (including reducing the stock of affordable housing) have made the old target unachievable (as the government’s own child poverty commission has pointed out). Even where there has been some semblance of a plan – to radically overhaul means-tested benefits by bringing them into one universal credit – implementation has been incompetent and key objectives (like making work pay) undermined by the need to stay within arbitrary caps on welfare spending (which, having only just been set, will now be breached in three of the next five years). Labour was sometimes bad at planning too (John Prescott’s ‘ten year’ transport plan round aground within days of being published), but far better by comparison with the plan-free chaos that now persists across most public services, including of course transport itself.
In housing, a review by the Guardian of recent national housing plans, prompted by John Healey’s announcement of a commission led by Peter Redfern to look at the decline in home ownership, found that the notable examples (Barker, Callcutt and Lyons) were all instigated by Labour. Back in September, Brandon Lewis set a target of building one million homes by 2020. The plan to do this seems be the Housing Bill which, as Red Brick has pointed out, is largely devoted to dismantling social housing.
The target would mean doubling current output, so how is that to be done? Labour’s Lyons Review envisaged a bigger role for local authorities, whereas the present government seems determined to undermine the capacity it created in April 2012 when council housing became self-financing. It has attacked capacity in the housing association sector by cutting rents and turning off the subsidy for new rented housing, instead launching a huge stimulus for home ownership when all the evidence points to massive unmet demand for homes to rent, and even the leading provider of buy to let mortgages is calling for a long-term, comprehensive strategy that looks across the whole market not just at owner-occupation.
Indeed, the chart by Hamptons summarises how much the government’s target for its own investment is distorted by these aims. Over 80% of publicly funded output will now be aimed at owner-occupation, via Starter Homes or shared ownership: the former is new and untried and, while the latter is well-established, in the last five years it has only delivered at about half the output now required. The tried and tested product, housing for below-market rent, is relegated to the ‘other’ category, contributing only 12% of output. Given such a drastic switch of resources, and the limited warning to the housing industry that it was about to happen, what chance is there of these housing targets being actually achieved?
As a former student of town planning I recall that the opposite of planning was represented by a school of decision-making known as disjointed incrementalism. Cameron is a man without a plan, whose model of government could well be this one. Disjointed incrementalism was first described in 1959 by social scientist Charles Lindblom. His other name for it was ‘the science of muddling through’.