Local government public health budgets: a time for turning?

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In her first month as Prime Minister, Theresa May has signalled that she will focus on inequalities and life chances. Unlike the first woman to occupy Number 10, she may even be one for turning, as evidenced by the Hinkley Point reappraisal. Given this fresh thinking, I wonder whether the Prime Minister will be interested in the current situation with public health budgets.

After a welcome commitment to better funding of public health services in the early years of the coalition (it’s easy to forget that growth in the local government public health grant initially outpaced clinical commissioning group allocations) the ex-Chancellor first slammed the brakes on, then made a £200 million in-year reduction, and finally announced in the Spending Review a further real-terms cut averaging 3.9 per cent each year until 2020/21.

The King’s Fund and many others warned of the false economy of these cuts; the arguments are well rehearsed so I won’t repeat them here. What is worth underlining, though, is how local authorities are planning to cope with these cuts – the first tranche of data on this has now been released – buried though it is on the Department for Communities and Local Government’s website.

Figure 1 below shows the percentage changes in local authorities’ planned spending on public health services between 2015/16 and 2016/17 – a 9 per cent cut on a like-for-like basis.1

Figure 1

Percentage change in planned local authority revenue spending on like-for-like public health functions 2016/17 compared to 2015/16 (cash terms)

The biggest percentage cuts are in smoking and tobacco control (perhaps to some extent a reaction to e-cigarettes) and public health advice to NHS commissioners – very worrying given the supposed move to a more place-based approach to health from both the NHS and local government. There are also substantial cuts in spending on adult obesity; given the recent findings that we are systematically under-counting calorie consumption, this is a cause for concern.

The only areas that escape the axe (at least in cash terms) are physical activity and obesity services for children, and alcohol misuse services for adults.2

Figure 2 below shows the same categories, but this time the absolute differences. The biggest absolute cuts beyond miscellaneous spend (which includes spending on accident prevention, dental public health and environmental hazards, for example) are in drug misuse for adults,3 smoking cessation services, and testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. The only significant increase is for adult alcohol misuse services.4

Figure 2

Absolute change in planned local authority revenue spending on like-for-like public health functions 2016/17 compared to 2015/16

Of course these are only plans, and actual spend might be different – though radical changes are unlikely. The 2015/16 out-turn spending figures will be released soon, but we will have to wait until next summer to check final spending against the plans outlined above.

Can we really wait that long? Planned spending on some of the key determinants of our health in wider local government budgets is also falling; for example, culture and related services, which includes spending on open spaces, recreation and sport, is down by 6 per cent, and housing services, which includes homelessness, benefits and strategy, down by 7.5 per cent using the same data source. Given Theresa May’s interest in social justice and relaxation of the ex-Chancellor’s target to achieve a budgetary surplus, might these figures persuade her to turn?

  • 1The eagle-eyed will spot that there are a few omissions: services for children aged 0-5 (responsibility for these services was transferred from the NHS to local authorities in October 2015), public mental health and health at work. If these categories were included, it would appear as an overall increase of 5 per cent in planned expenditure. But this would be misleading, because 2016/17 includes a full year of funding for children’s services (around £800 million transferred from the NHS) whereas 2015/16 only included six months (around £400 million). This money is not growth, but a simple transfer. Taking these numbers out, as Figure 1 does, compares the expenditure on a like-for-like basis, a fairer and a truer reflection of the overall pressures on local authorities, and shows an overall reduction in budgeted spend of 9 per cent.
  • 2However, it is important to be aware that for 2016/17 there are two categories of alcohol misuse services (treatment and prevention) whereas in 2015/16 there was only treatment. We have combined both categories for 2016/17; if we had only compared budgets for treatment then there would have been a reduction of 14 per cent.
  • 3Though there are the same differences in classification for drug misuse categories in 2016/17 as there are for alcohol misuse.
  • 4But again if we only compared budgets under the treatment category for 2016/17, then this £20 million increase (which includes the new line for prevention in 2016/17) would be turned into a £24.8 million reduction.


Sandy Evans

Consultant Dietitian,
Comment date
22 August 2016
Many thanks for this report. It's a sad state of affairs for obesity/weight management in the future if funding is continually directed towards childhood obesity and reduced for adult obesity.

I gave a presentation a couple years ago that highlighted:-
--Only 3 per cent of overweight or obese children have parents who are not overweight or obese: (Cross-Government Obesity Unit, 2008).

--RCT confirms that parent-only approach to treating childhood obesity is at least as, if not more effective than parent-and-child strategies and can be more cost savings.  (Obesity, 2010)

--The only independently significant predictor of adolescent BMI change was parent BMI change. (J Ped Psy 2011)

However, it's sadly represents what I see happening with local weight management programmes.

David Buck

Senior Fellow,
The King's Fund
Comment date
19 August 2016
Paul, the source is CLG's returns of local government plans on spending. The source data is hyperlinked at "first tranche of data" in the blog. Happy to make contact via email to follow-up. But as stated above these are differences in what is planned to be spent between years. This is not what is actually spent. So looking at plan 2015-16 vs actual 2015-16 (out soon) is another cut of the data, or actual 2015-15 vs actual 2016-17 another (will have to wait till this time next year to see this), or actual 2014-15 vs actual 2015-16 (again, this will be possible soon). Nonetheless, we think this shows how local authorities are having to make tough decisions and starting to respond to the cuts in their overall budgets and their public health grants in particular.

Paul Gately

Professor of Obesity,
Leeds Beckett University
Comment date
19 August 2016
Please can you share the source that outlines increase in funding for child obesity services, this is not inline with our observations or reports we have seen. Two reports by Charity HOOP find something different. Plus no mention in yesterdays childhood obesity strategy of the 1 in 3 children that are already overweight or obese.


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