The citizen view

The State of the State

Understanding public attitudes has always been important to government and public services. It helps political leaders respond to the electorate’s priorities and helps public service managers deliver what matters most to their users – and that is more important than ever as decision and policy makers explore ways to maximise the value of public spending, encourage greater personal responsibility and shift public expectations on the public services.

The public continue to want greater spending on public services

Nine years of austerity appear to have shifted citizen attitudes to tax and spending. The number of people who want to see more extensive public services – even if that means tax rises – has risen from 46 per cent in 2009 to consistently around 60 per cent over the last few years. Over the same timescale, the proportion of the public who want to preserve the current balance of tax and spending has dipped from a third to a quarter. In other words, most of the UK public want to see more money spent on public services, they appear willing – at least in theory – to pay more tax to fund them, and they increasingly want to see the government take action to alter the balance of tax and spending.

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Social care and housing are emerging public priorities

In recent years, our survey asked which areas of public spending should be protected from cuts. This year, as the government commits to end austerity, we updated this question to ask which areas should be prioritised for spending. That change in emphasis provides insight into the nuanced difference between services that the public believe should be shielded from budget cuts and services that the pubic believe need investment.

Against that backdrop, our survey confirms that the NHS, education and the police remain, as ever, the public’s top priorities for public spending. However, our survey points to signs that social care and housing are emerging as areas that the public believe need more investment.

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People are worried about public services, but new spending may be stabilising views

Our survey explored levels of optimism for the near-term future of public services and found substantial levels of concern. As the chart shows, half the public believe the environment and the NHS will get worse in the years ahead while a quarter expect them to get better. A little under half think that opportunities for young people will worsen in the years ahead, and again, just a quarter think they will improve.

However, comparisons between data this year and last suggest that views on the future of public services are not getting any more pessimistic and may be starting to stabilise. While the public still remain concerned, the direction of travel appears to have turned for some services. Since 2018, the number of people saying the NHS, policing and public transport will get worse has fallen and the number of people saying they will improve has grown. This could be explained by significant spending announcements over the past year.

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The UK public is worried about the environment – and wants government action

Public concerns over the future of the environment have risen sharply in the past year. In June 2018, 37 per cent of the public thought the environment was set to get worse and 29 per cent thought it would improve in the years to come. A year later, our survey found that 51 per cent of the public believe it will get worse and 24 per cent believe it will get better.

That dramatic rise in public concern appears to have been driven by the United Nations’ stark warning that just twelve years are left to avert climate catastrophe as well as campaigner Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary climate activism and David Attenborough’s hard-hitting documentary series.

Our survey also found remarkably strong public demand for action on climate change. We asked whether the government should press ahead with a range of measures to protect the environment and each measure was supported by at least 80 per cent of the public – as shown in the green elements of the chart. Some 65 per cent said that the government should be doing more to ban environmentally harmful products and 58 per cent want to see higher taxes on them.

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Perceptions of inequality and generational opportunity have got worse

In 2008, half of the UK public believed that people had equal opportunities to get ahead in life. This year, our survey found that has dropped to a third. We also found that 45 per cent of the public believe today’s young people will have a worse life than their parents. When Ipsos MORI asked a similar question in 2003, just 12 per cent thought their children would have a lower quality of life than them. In other words, since the economic crash, fewer people expect that their children will have a better life than them.

This is highly significant for UK policymakers. The country performs badly in international comparisons of social mobility and a substantial amount of commentary around the Brexit referendum suggested that many communities feel disconnected from the UK’s economic success. Much of the political narrative of the past three years has focused on reducing inequalities, making sure that all parts of the UK thrive and that ultimately, that the country ‘comes together’. Our survey, alongside historic Ipsos MORI data, illustrates the scale of that challenge as well as the importance of tackling it.

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The results show some regional differences in perceptions. People in Wales see society as more equal than the rest of the UK, with 41 per cent saying that people have equal opportunities in life. At the other end of the spectrum, just a quarter of people in Scotland believe there are equal opportunities to get ahead. Perhaps that perception was informed by Scottish Government figures this year that showed one in five people in Scotland are living in relative poverty.

Northern Ireland stands out as the only region where people believe life will be better for today’s young people compared to their parents – perhaps drawing a comparison between life now and during the Troubles. The chart below shows these national variations.

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The public want greater involvement in local services – some more than others

Our survey assessed the public’s appetite for engagement with public services. It found that the majority, 60 per cent, believe that people should have more control over local services and just 16 per cent thought they should not.

However, when we asked about individual appetites for getting involved in how local services operate, we found the majority are content to let others take charge. Around a third of the public just want local services to get on with their job and another third would simply like to know more about how they work. Less than a fifth want to have a say in how services operate and fewer than one in ten want to be actively involved.

Our survey shows that the six per cent of people who are already involved in public services is a similar number to the seven per cent who said that they would like to be. That means the pool of people willing to participate in the local public sector – as councillors, governors, volunteers or consultees – could be twice the size of current levels of participation.

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The north and Wales feel short-changed with infrastructure spending

More than half the UK public, some 54 per cent, think their region gets its fair share of spending on transport infrastructure. As our chart shows, Londoners are more likely than anyone else to believe they get more than their fair share with 28 per cent saying that’s the case.

However, the majority in Wales and the north of England believe they get short-changed. Some 61 per cent of people in Wales and 56 per cent of people in the north say that their region gets less than its fair share of spending on transport and other major projects. Following closely behind, 49 per cent of people in Northern Ireland and 47 per cent of Scots believe that they lose out.

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