Today was billed a low-key, fiscal statement. On that, Spreadsheet Phil delivered. While it wasn’t the raucous political event that Budgets can so often become, there were a number of announcements today that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Chancellor’s four main themes seemed to be: helping small businesses, transport, housing, and the environment. Most of today’s new announcements came off the back of old ones – with the Chancellor providing updates on how previously-allocated commitments are to be spent. However, there were new ones too.
Following a difficult winter for brick and mortar retailers, the Chancellor promised to bring forward the next business rates revaluations to 2021, to be reviewed triennially after. The last business rates change was a mixed blessing for many, so companies will be watching this one closely. Likewise, Government will consult on new VAT collection mechanism for online sales” – referred to online as “making sure multinational digital businesses pay a fair share of tax” – with internet giants driving the decline of the high street. Government is also seeking views on the role of digital payments in the economy. In another message that will resonate with small business, and likely with recent controversy about Carillion’s controversial 120-day payment terms in mind, the Government today committed to a call for evidence on how to “eliminate the continuing scourge of late payments.”
The second theme was transport. City regions are now being invited to bid for money from the Transforming Cities Fund, which provides finance for transport projects that improve productivity and reduce on congestion, and a New Transport Fund. The Government is keen to push areas to adopt the city region model saying that, of the £1.7 billion announced at last year’s Autumn Budget 2017 for improving transport in English cities, half of this has been given to Combined Authorities with mayors. The government is now inviting bids from cities across England for the remaining £840 million.
On housing, the Chancellor said that initial findings from Oliver Letwin’s review of the planning system and housing will be published today, ahead of the full report’s release alongside the Autumn Budget. Hammond also announced that outlined agreements have been reached to deliver 215,000 homes in the West Midlands by 2030-31 and 116,000 affordable homes in London by the end of 2021/22. Analysts will likely point out that this is a drop in the ocean compared to the more than 250,000 homes the UK needs to build every year, if it is to match demand.
Perhaps the biggest new announcements were reserved for the environment, with a particular eye on the protracted and knotty legal situation around air quality. The Government announced it will consult on cutting Vehicle Excise Duty for low-emission vans, following a successful scheme for taxis, and publish a consultation on whether the use of non-agricultural red diesel tax relief contributes to poor air quality in urban areas.
In the last few days, researchers announced that the River Tame at Denton, Greater Manchester, was found to have the highest levels of microplastics recorded anywhere in the world. Perhaps with this ringing in their ears, Hammond said the Government will consult on how changes to the tax system or charges might be used to reduce the amount of single-use plastics we waste, using the revenues to fund “new, greener, products and processes” and announcing £20 million from existing departmental budgets to businesses and universities, to stimulate new thinking and rapid solutions in this area during the call for evidence.
Overall, today’s announcements were quietly important. While Hammond certainly underscored that this Spring Statement is not a major fiscal event; it would certainly be unwise to ignore it.