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