Slimmed-down police show that austerity is good for public services

The police have been cut, yet crime is down. Uncomfortable, isn't it? All those predictions: the Police Federation said cuts would mean "Christmas for criminals", while Labour declared offending would rise. And then crime inconveniently fell to its lowest level for over three decades.

Now it seems a public service might actually be just as good, even better, when it costs less. Suddenly the world where we measured the quality of services by how expensive they are has been turned upside down.

It was only when the country ran out of money that the old orthodoxy was challenged. Not long ago every political party paraded its virility on crime by promising more bobbies on the beat. No one stopped to ask what the record number of police was actually doing.

As it turned out, a fifth - 30,000 officers - weren't working on the frontline at all, but in backroom jobs. When the crunch came, forces quickly found that there were savings to be made. Police commanders whispered quietly that a burning platform had forced them to tackle inefficiencies that had festered for years.

In other public services with protected budgets, old arguments have survived for longer. Spending more on the NHS is still deployed as a test of how much political parties care. But even here times are changing. When some hospitals have so desperately failed patients despite never having more resources, it simply isn't credible to claim that a few more nurses would have stopped it all happening. Beneath the party political heavy shelling, a different healthcare debate is emerging.

The deficit simply wouldn't allow the continuation of unquestioning spending rises. But those who think all we have to do is endure austerity before the halcyon days of spending like there's no tomorrow return will find themselves mugged by reality a second time.

Last week the Office for Budget Responsibility published a sobering report into the long-term sustainability of the public finances. An ageing population will mean higher costs in pensions, health and social care. We face an even higher tax burden or public spending cuts in other areas.

In this arid new climate the political parties will have little choice but to think again about how public services should be run. The argument that the state will deliver less, so allowing competition to raise standards and lower costs, is being won - with about one in every three pounds spent by government going to independent providers. But a second Rubicon must now be crossed: private spending within public services will have to be enabled. Britain spends proportionately far less on private healthcare, for instance, than other developed countries.

The challenge for modern governments should not be to defend monopoly provision or disallow private funding, but to design better partnerships with the private sector and protect equitable access to services. At the very least, the state will have to become a great deal more proficient at commissioning services, as the Institute for Government urged last week. Bad deals aren't a reason to turn our backs on the private sector; they are a lesson to write contracts properly.

None of the parties is yet ready to take all the necessary steps, but the Labour party seems particularly ill-equipped for the journey. Ed Miliband has ostentatiously moved away from Blairite market reforms, demonstrating hostility to private sector involvement in health, education and justice. Even Gordon Brown signed up to "investment tied to reform", but today Labour offers the lethal cocktail of more spending and less reform. Doubtless winding back reforms appeals to public sector unions whose mission is to defend the producer interest. But government requires putting the interests of patients, parents and taxpayers first.

Going back to the future will simply put public services at risk. In its report last week Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary praised the response of police forces to the financial challenge, but warned that the need to achieve greater efficiencies would necessitate collaboration with the private sector.

Hey big spenders, the numbers don't add up any more. Your promises to ringfence budgets, maintain welfare entitlements for the wealthy and row back on reform are unaffordable. Look at how the police have delivered more with less, and think again.

Christopher N Howarth