A new report shares “extreme concerns” over the Conservatives’ ability to meet their manifesto promise while a separate update from the National Audit Office questions their levelling up progress.
By Tim Baker, political reporter, and Rachel McGrath, news reporter
It is “highly unlikely” the government will deliver on its pledge to build 40 new hospitals, a group of MPs has claimed – while warning the NHS is “crumbling before our eyes”.
In a damning report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said they have “extreme concerns” about the “lack of progress” the government’s New Hospitals Programme (NHP) has made so far.
The target number of new hospitals was reduced to 32 in July but even getting that far is “highly unlikely”, the committee added.
Meanwhile, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) into the government’s levelling up programme has found spiralling costs, skills shortages and delayed decision-making – leading to authorities struggling to deliver projects on time.
The levelling up and hospitals promises were cornerstones of the 2019 manifesto upon which the current government was elected.
Dame Meg Hillier, the chair of the PAC, said: “The physical edifice that is the NHS is quite literally crumbling before our eyes. There was nothing inevitable about this heartbreaking crisis.”
She added that blame can be “laid squarely at the door of the decision to raid budgets reserved for maintenance and investment in favour of day-to-day spending”.
“We are now seeing the consequences of this short-termism visited on patients and services,” she added.
The Conservatives’ repeated promise to build 40 new hospitals came under scrutiny on the 2019 election trail amid questions about what qualified as a hospital.
In order to build the revised target of 32 hospitals, the government implemented a “new standard hospital design” – standardised buildings that could then be constructed around the country to cut down on costs and resources.
However, the PAC reported that the latest version of the hospital plan is “very likely to produce hospitals that are too small”.
The reasons for this include factoring in an improved social care plan – something else promised by Boris Johnson – which has not yet materialised.
A Sky News investigation cast doubt on the government’s ability to fulfil its promise in 2022, when the deadlines for multiple hospital completion dates were pushed back.
Dame Hillier added: “Though we have no confidence that the NHP will deliver on its current promises, we hope that the recommendations in our report help to get it back on track – for the sake of all citizens who desperately need the NHS to get well soon.”
The report also raised concerns about how the original 40 hospitals were selected – and that there was no documentation to explain how 27 locations were chosen.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering 40 new hospitals by 2030, expected to be backed by over £20bn of investment and additional clinical projects.”
Levelling up in trouble
In order to implement levelling up, the government has announced £9.5bn of funding in three rounds since 2019.
But a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that, as of March this year, £2bn has been given to “local places” – and just £0.9bn has been spent.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said another £1.5bn has since been spent.
The report also found that – of the 1,300 projects supported by the money, just 64 have been completed and 74 have still not yet been started. Some 1,143 are currently underway.
However, much like with the hospitals, the report found the government’s deadlines are “unlikely to be met” and some 50% of building projects due in March 2024 had not even signed contracts by March 2023.
Inflation, skills shortages in the construction sector and delays in government were all blamed by the NAO – with an average delay of 10 months per project.
Zoe Billingham, director of the think tank IPPR North, said: “This report includes a litany of missed deadlines, moving goalposts and dysfunction in the way levelling up funds have been allocated to councils as part of the government’s flagship programme.”
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Labelling the report’s figures “out of date,” A DLUHC spokesperson said: “In the eight months since March, DLUHC has paid over £1.5bn of further funding out to local authorities.
“We have committed £13bn to levelling up, supporting projects to improve everyday life for people across the UK, regenerating town centres and high streets, local transport and cultural and heritage assets.”
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.