Autumn Budget: Tricks or Treats?

Last week the nation eagerly waited to see if the Chancellor’s little red box contained a trick or a treat – as the Autumn Budget moved from its usual Wednesday slot to Monday to avoid Halloween and the inevitable horror headlines.

Bold messages about austerity coming to an end and the continuation of the jobs “miracle” were the dazzling star statements from Philip Hammond.

The Chancellor predicted 800,000 new jobs by 2022 and announced that from April 2019, the national living wage will increase to £8.21 – a 4.9 per cent increase equivalent to an extra £691 per year for each employee.

But beyond these figures what other positives did the Chancellor offer British workers in his Budget?

Apprenticeships

A big win for the UK workforce was Mr Hammond’s announcement that contributions from small businesses towards apprentices’ training costs have been halved to five per cent. I fully support this move to help smaller firms hire apprentices and believe this initiative will be an important step towards reducing the skills shortage.

This has already helped put alternatives to university – such as apprenticeships, traineeships, volunteering and vocational courses – back in the news agenda. This will help to build awareness and encourage both jobseekers and employers to embrace these options more freely.

On-the-job training is a truly powerful tool to help upskill current workers, and can also increase our pool of skilled, qualified potential employees for companies.

Connectivity

As Mr Hammond previously said: “For the 21st century, broadband is to roads in the 20th, railways in the 19th, and canals in the 18th. It’s the network infrastructure that will make this country work.”

I agree. Connectivity is key to the strength of our future labour market.

It was therefore reassuring to hear the Chancellor support this statement with a £250m investment into full fibre broadband. This latest cash injection will go some way to delivering the quality of network connection businesses and individuals need, particularly in rural areas. Better connectivity will help bring companies and talented individuals together and ultimately help to level the playing field across the UK.

Productivity

The Chancellor also pledged a cut in the business rates bill for small businesses. In real terms, this means that over a two-year period, businesses with a rateable value of £51,000 and under will see their bill cut by a third. This is a particularly important boost for independent businesses, 90 per cent of whom will save £8,000 on average, allowing them to invest more in their staff and the quality of their goods and services.

A cash injection of £30billion is also going into UK roads – including tackling every motorist’s pet peeve – the dreaded potholes. As part of the plan, £650m will also go towards improving infrastructure and transport.

This will improve productivity across the UK, ensuring that the transportation of goods can flow more smoothly and that the UK is much better connected both in the cyberspace and on the ground.

Retail jobs

Over the past decade Britain’s high street retailers have seen the rise of e-commerce and in turn a decline in sales and footfall. In a bid to aid the high street, just under half a million small retailers will be subject to business rates relief. A £675 million “future high streets fund” has also been created to improve bricks and mortar stores and town centres and boost footfall.

I welcome these steps to try and revive Britain’s high streets, which form a valuable part in bringing communities together and driving local economies.

The uncertainty of Brexit next year has clearly influenced the budget, as prudent Mr Hammond announced few long-term spending promises that could not be later reversed.

Similarly, many of the details that might be expected – and that might be less popular – were deferred to the spending review next year.

But entrepreneurship, small business, revitalising the high street, reducing waste, improving mental health and improving productivity are not isolated problems that can be fixed with individual cash boosts. However, the early signs from the Budget are positive.

The question now is whether they can be delivered and sustained, regardless of the Brexit deal that is negotiated.