“EVERYWHERE things are lean. And not in a strategic, managed way.” It is March 8th. In Westminster Philip Hammond is giving the budget speech. And in the West Midlands Caroline Leighton is pondering the British state. As chief executive of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Coventry, she knows her stuff. The CAB network is where people who have been failed by the public sector come for support: those who have fallen through the social safety net, are tangled up in the legal, tax and health systems, or otherwise need help and do not know where to turn. So the waiting room outside her office is a sort of dashboard, constantly measuring Leviathan’s performance. Today it is flashing red: standing-room only. In the past year the CAB’s workload has grown by over 20%.

You do not have to spend long here to find evidence of a public sector under intense pressure. One visitor could not get a doctor’s appointment despite acute mental-health problems. Another, a 50-hour-a-week floor-layer swindled by his boss, was failed by the authorities and ended up at food banks. Staff talk of civil servants simply disappearing. “You call an office and the phone rings for ever because no one is there any more,” says Ed Hodson, the research boss. Pressured bureaucrats get client numbers wrong, lose documents and misspell names, leaving vulnerable citizens without income for weeks. Increasingly ubiquitous at the Coventry CAB are people who have fallen into the gaps between systems—think the man with mental-health problems, unpayable debts and thugs outside his front door. From 2014-15 to 2015-16 the average number of “issues” per visitor rose from 2.8 to 3.5.

Coventry is not an outlier. It is pure Middle England, close to the national average on most economic and demographic indicators. Its economy blends manufacturing (the largest private employer is Jaguar Land Rover) with services (Barclays bank and the local building society provide plenty of financial jobs). Like many English cities it was heavily bombed in the second world war and was insensitively rebuilt afterwards. The centre is a concrete tangle of highways and roundabouts encircling windswept, early-1960s pedestrian plazas. The average resident of Coventry is neither rich nor poor, neither cosmopolitan nor rural, and gets on with life in a cityscape forged by a past generation’s nightmares and Utopias.

And, like many other cities, Coventry has seen its public services pruned. On the budget’s eve, Bagehot spoke to Ed Ruane, the councillor in charge of children’s services. He had come fresh from a meeting at which it had been decided to end all remaining council provision of youth services, close 11 of 18 children’s centres and hand many libraries to voluntary associations. Such facilities, he says, were about more than keeping kids occupied; they were an early-warning system alerting authorities to things like child sexual abuse. The Wood End estate, in Mr Ruane’s north Coventry ward, saw violent riots in 1992. Now he fears for the institutions—the libraries, sports centres and social programmes—established to heal the wounds.

To be sure, Coventry’s council has adapted. It now shares functions with neighbouring authorities, puts services out to tender and limits its use of back-office staff. It is much more open to ad hoc partnerships with NGOs, says Ms Leighton. These changes would be welcome even in the absence of austerity. But such reforms have their limits. The city’s public sector has started to struggle. At the hospital 23% of emergency patients now breach the NHS’s four-hour target for treatment, up from 13% a year ago. The nearest prison saw a 12-hour riot in December. At night rough sleepers shiver in doorways. “The number rose 30% in 2016, on top of 50% in 2015,” explains Matthew Green, a local homelessness campaigner. Even in Coventry’s wealthy, sinuous suburbs, like Woodlands, concerns about anti-social behaviour and crime are rising.

The wages of Brexit

The city is a cross-section of the British state. The austerity cuts began in 2010. For several years the effects were limited. Nationally, confidence in the police service grew despite a real-terms cut of 17% in spending. Violence in prisons was flat despite an 18% cut. Hospital admissions outpaced funding increases while satisfaction levels remained stable. But since about 2014 the figures have turned. The administrators of the British state have run out of fat to cut. Assaults on prison staff are up by 75% in three years. Homelessness in England has grown by a third. The proportion of emergency hospital admissions hitting the four-hour target has fallen from 98% in 2010 to 82%.

Now some services are in full-blown crisis and remain alive only thanks to emergency infusions from Mr Hammond. It was prisons in November, social care in January, and both social care and the NHS in the budget on March 8th. To quote the Institute for Government, a neutral think-tank, “crisis, cash, repeat” has become the new philosophy of the British state. The next flashpoints will probably be the police (who warn the coming cuts will start to reverse the recent fall in crime) and schools (which are already experiencing a recruitment crisis and face an 8% fall in spending per pupil over the course of the Parliament).

And things are set to get worse. In the budget Mr Hammond confirmed that the austerity programme launched in 2010 will continue at a similar pace, accelerating in sensitive fields like prisons and local government. Other pressures are growing. Inflation is rising and the population is ageing. And all this as Britain’s exit from the EU threatens the very tax base that keeps the show on the road. The Institute for Government now talks of “a disastrous combination of failing public services and breached spending controls just as we exit the European Union in 2019.” At best the coming years will be a rough ride. At worst they could buck the government out of its saddle.

Economist.com/blogs/bagehot