Public health budgets, how strong is the ring fence?

It was with intrigue but of little surprise that I read about the Sheffield Council’s proposal to save some of the libraries planned for closure in the city by using public health funds

Repatriating public health back into local authorities was a welcome move, but one not without risks.  Public health is the only area of local government which has been shielded from the axes of above whilst colleagues around them are fighting for money here there and everywhere. It is inevitable that bringing public health back into local authorities carries with it the real risk that sooner or later those colleagues around them will start looking to this ‘sacred’ pot of money to survive. Case in point, Sheffield.

I thought I’d get my legislative head on and scurry around the reams of legislation to find out what the gods in Westminster tells us about ring fenced public health budgets, in particular what the terms and conditions are of the public health budgets. The guidelines essentially say the money must be used for public health purposes as mandated by their public health function (outlined in the National Health Service Act 2006 see section 73B (2). However the grant conditions state that funds can be spent on other functions of the local authority only if ‘the authority is of the opinion that those functions have a significant effect on public health’. The wording certainly leaves room for interpretation and it is under this remit that Sheffield is arguing for public health money as libraries improve wellbeing. And can you blame them? Desperate time calls for desperate measures

Indeed a recent report by the NLGN cited the envy felt by others in the local authority towards public health. When they’re being stripped of money it must be difficult to swallow seeing your colleagues have a protected and increased budget. It seems that this envy has the propensity to turn into action.

Surely then why aren’t more local authorities following suit? Well I can find little evidence of it having happened elsewhere, but it might have been the case of who was going to take the first jump? If so, have Sheffield now set a precedent? And will the defences of public health remain strong against the attack?

Rosanna Post is a Project Officer at The Campaign Company. She specialises in Behaviour Change. To find out more about The Campaign Company click here.


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