Who could envy a Chancellor having to deliver a Spring budget just one month into the job and in the midst of a global pandemic?
The Spring budget came after the early morning announcement of by the BoE (Bank of England) of an interest rate cut from 0.75% to 0.25%. Was this an outgoing Governor stealing an incoming Chancellor’s thunder?
With short term measures to help businesses deal with the Covid-19 consequences and others dealing with the environment, infrastructure, business taxes and addressing regional inequality the Spring budget covered them all.
The headline was a commitment to invest in infrastructure in support of the government’s commitment to ‘level up’ the economy by focusing investment on the Midlands and North: “over the next five years, we will invest more than £600bn pounds in our future prosperity”.
Many worries of SMEs were addressed by the £30bn package of short term measures to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic.
They included abolishing business rates altogether for a year for small retailers with a rateable value below £51,000 extended to include museums, art galleries, and theatres, caravan parks and gyms, small hotels and B&Bs, sports clubs, night clubs, club houses and guest houses.
There was also a promise that business rates as a whole would be reviewed later in the year.
Any firm that is currently eligible for the small business rates relief will also be able to claim a £3,000 cash grant.
The Government will also cover up to 80% of a coronavirus loan scheme to cover the cost of salaries and bills and will offer loans of up to £1.2m to support small and medium sized businesses.
£2bn will be allocated to cover firms employing fewer than 250 people that lose out because staff are off sick with the cost of a business having to have someone off work for up to 14 days refunded.
The benefits rules will be relaxed to enable those who currently do not qualify for sick pay, such as the self-employed and gig economy workers, to claim benefits, which will also now be paid from day one of sickness.
Fuel duty was also frozen for a further year, but tax relief on red diesel will be removed over two years albeit with an exemption for farmers, rail and fishing.
In the longer term and over the five years of the parliament, the much-anticipated £170bn spending on improving the transport infrastructure and addressing the regional imbalance was also confirmed.
This will benefit the construction industry and is no doubt part of another statement: “Today, I’m announcing the biggest ever investment in strategic roads and motorway – over £27bn of tarmac. That will pay for work on over 20 connections to ports and airports, over 100 junctions, 4,000 miles of road.”
Similarly, the Chancellor confirmed that more than 750 staff from the Treasury and other departments will move to a campus in the north of England, as well as significant investment on R & D and that at least £800m will be invested in a new blue skies research agency, modelled on ARPA in the US.
Among a host of environmental initiatives, a new tax on plastic packaging is to be introduced, as well as freezing the levy on electricity and raising it on gas from April 2022.
Given the uncertain prospects for the UK’s economy, how many of the longer-term promises will be realised is likely to depend on the Government’s ability to borrow at unprecedentedly low rates so that it remains to be seen how much of the longer-term spending will actually happen.
It also remains to be seen how difficult the processes by which SMEs can claim help for Covid-19 related losses will be and whether the promise to review business rates as a whole will materialise.
The PR spin is already in place such as RBS’s claim today that it will provide £5bn of support for SMEs when in practice the small print refers to this as an extension to existing loan and overdraft facilities.
Notwithstanding any cynicism the Chancellor’s rhetoric was optimistic claiming his budget was aimed at “Creating jobs. Cutting taxes. Keeping the cost of living low. Investing in our NHS. Investing in our public services. Investing in ideas. Backing business. Protecting our environment. Building roads. Building railways. Building colleges. Building houses. Building our Union.”