England’s poorest communities have borne the brunt of almost £900m of cuts to public health spending, despite them having higher rates of disease, research has revealed.
Places with high levels of deprivation such as Liverpool, Blackpool and Birmingham have lost much more of their budgets to prevent problems such obesity and smoking than better-off areas.
One pound in every £7 of the £871.6m that has been cut from Whitehall’s public health grant to local councils in England over the last five years has been taken from budgets in the 10 poorest areas of the country.
In contrast the 10 wealthiest places have lost public health funding equivalent to just £1 in every £46.
Overall the most deprived areas have lost £120m while the least deprived have seen their budgets contract by just £20m.
The findings are contained in an analysis by the IPPR thinktank of government spending data, looking at which councils have borne the biggest share of the £871.6m reduction since 2014.
It prompted warnings that the trend would widen the already stark differentials in life expectancy between those in well-off and poor areas. People in the latter are already more likely to develop and die from killer conditions such as cancer, lung disease, obesity, diabetes and liver disease.
“These cuts have had the perverse effect of hitting the poorest the hardest,” said Chris Thomas, the IPPR research fellow who undertook the analysis. “This means the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in our country has been put at risk, and puts unnecessary strain on the NHS.”
Councils use the public health grant to encourage smokers to quit, promote healthy lifestyles to tackle obesity, provide sexual health services and treat addiction to drink and drugs.
But they have been forced to reduce the number and range of services they provide in recent years owing to austerity-driven cuts to their funding from Whitehall. That has led to a contraction in stop-smoking services, sexual health provision and the number of people being treated as inpatients for addiction.
Dr Peter English, chair of the British Medical Association’s public health medicine committee, said: “Fundamental flaws in the way the government allocates funds to local authorities for public health … exacerbates the effects of already damaging cuts and widens health inequalities by hitting the poorest hardest.”
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said the cuts were “short-sighted” and urged whoever forms the next government to boost public health spending by £1bn.
“Continued cuts in public health and local government funding … limit access to vital services for the most vulnerable, potentially fuel the rise in preventable diseases, and ultimately compound already unacceptable health inequalities,” she said.
NHS England plans to put more than £1bn by 2023 into efforts to promote the prevention of ill-health in the poorest areas to bring down rates of avoidable death as part of its long-term plan.
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