Councils are ‘running out of time’ to make the £200m of in-year cuts to public health budgets announced by the chancellor last month, HSJ’s sister title Local Government Chronicle has been told.
Almost six weeks after Mr Osborne revealed the shock reduction – and almost a third of the way through the financial year – local authorities are yet to receive any indication of how the axe will fall in their area.
The time lag has been blamed on the fact a promised consultation on how the cut should be applied has to get sign off from across government, due to the number of departments involved.
However, public health directors told LGC the lack of correspondence from the Department of Health or Public Health England made it difficult to prepare for the cut, which is likely to involve renegotiation of contracts with NHS providers.
Fiona Johnstone, director of public health at Wirral Borough Council, said: “I have no idea whether I’m losing £2.5m or whether it could be more so I’m not able to tell providers of services whether there is going to be a cut in-year or not and I’m running out of time to do that.
“I need at least three months to give reasonable notice of a cut.”
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Chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health Nicola Close said the delay was “causing difficulties” for councils.
“The consultation will be for several weeks so the government won’t decide how they’re going to take the money until the autumn.
“Most local authorities are deciding where the axe will fall even though they don’t know how much the cut will be yet.”
She said the delay was due to the number of government departments involved in signing off the consultation document.
The cut is equivalent to 7.4 per cent of the £2.7bn public health spending, or 6.2 per cent once the additional £430m that councils are due to receive in October to take on 0-5 years public health service from NHS England is counted.
The consultation is expected to ask whether a blanket cut should be applied across all authorities or whether the reduction should be weighted to take account of variations in funding per head.
The latter option would bring councils closer to their “target” funding amount.
Dominic Harrison, director of public health at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, said it was “extremely frustrating” not to have had any further information from the Treasury or the DH.
“If we are not going to be told until nearly half way through the [financial] year, it’s going to be much more than a 7.4 per cent cut,” he said.
The questions in the consultation must be approved by all Whitehall departments, LGC understands.
As the cut was imposed by the Treasury on a DH budget that is passed to councils via Public Health England, there are several government departments with an interest in how the cut is applied.
A spokeswoman for the DH said the consultation would be published “shortly”.