The history of UK public spending control 1993-2015

Principal Investigator: Iain McLean

Since emerging from the early-1990s recession, the UK economy has moved from sustained growth to deep recession and then sluggish post-crisis recovery. Each has presented challenges for public spending control – ranging from how to boost public investment in the ‘good times’ to how to bring spending down as a share of GDP after the financial crisis left the economy and tax revenues much smaller than previously expected. Since the early 1990s, four different spending regimes have been operated by three different governments.

This three-year project investigates how – and how well – spending control worked over this period. It will do so in four main ways: first, by looking at the statistical record of UK spending plans versus outturns; second, by examining public and archival documents on the design and efficacy of the different control regimes; third, through extensive interviews with the key politicians, officials and commentators that were involved at each stage; and fourth, via international comparison with a selection of advanced economies.

The project involves collaboration among experienced researchers from Nuffield College (with Iain McLean, Sr Research Fellow), the Blavatnik School of Government (with Christopher Hood, Visiting Professor), the Institute for Fiscal Studies (with Paul Johnson, Director) and the Institute for Government, with active support and cooperation from HM Treasury. The project also benefits from substantial pro bono contributions. 

The research team is keen to engage with anyone who was a player in, or a close observer of, public spending control in the UK since the advent of the ‘new control total’ and PDX Cabinet Committee in the early 1990s to the end of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2015. The team would be pleased to receive suggestions as to whom to interview, which cases it would be instructive to examine and the criteria against which the efficacy of public spending control systems can or should be assessed. For further information, please contact   

Funded by: Nuffield Foundation and the UK Economic and Social Research Council 

Timeframe: 2017-2020