To be fair to the Chancellor, he can’t be accused of dashing expectations.
He began his Spring Statement – his first – by warning us that he was at the despatch box to deliver an update, a progress report and some idea of the consultation to be carried out before the Budget next autumn. Not to come up with anything ground-breaking, either for businesses or for Joe or Joanna Public. And he was as good as his word.
Perhaps the only real surprise was that Philip Hammond revealed he sees himself as Tigger, against an opposition front bench of Eeyores. Though even then he constrained himself to a couple of wry smiles, rather than a good old bounce.
The update and progress report were broadly as expected.
Inflation should drop back to the target 2% within the year (it’s currently at 3%) and economic growth, at 1.5%, is up by 0.1% compared to last November’s predictions, though it is expected to fall to below 1% in 2022/23.
He reminded us we are experiencing the first sustained fall in debt in 17 years, and that the Office for Budget Responsibility has revised its borrowing forecast down from around £50bn to £45bn for 2017/18, the equivalent to 2.2% of GDP.
For anyone hoping that extra cash might shore up public services, though, there was disappointment. The most the Chancellor could do was hint that he’ll use his autumn Budget to “set an overall path for public spending for 2020 and beyond”. What he does want, he told us several times, is for the UK’s economy to work for everyone.
For businesses there was little immediate relief, but some promise for the future. The next business rates valuation will be brought forward to 2021, after which revaluations will switch to every three years, so companies are not left paying historically high rates.
There will also be a review to try to end late payments for firms, which can have such serious repercussions for cash-flow (as was demonstrated by the long line of small firms left high and dry when that notorious late payer Carillion collapsed). And there will be investment in online platforms to help users pay the right amount of tax first time, as well as a new mechanism to ensure VAT on online purchases is collected.
Few of us would argue with any of that.
There was more than a nod to the environment, too.
The Government will be calling for evidence on whether the use of non-agricultural red diesel tax relief contributes to poor air quality in urban areas, and if it does, examining what can be done about it.
It will also cut tax on the least polluting vans to, as the Chancellor put it, “help the great British white van driver go green”. Single use plastics will come under scrutiny, too, as the Government looks to tax them in a bid to encourage eco-friendly alternatives. This, the Chancellor assures us, is not to increase revenue, but to change behaviour. Additional revenues will be invested in remedies – beginning with a commitment of £20m to help universities come up with innovative alternatives to the throw-away plastic we now know clogs up some of our waterways and seas.
Some small firms will no doubt welcome additional support to take on apprentices as the education secretary releases up to £80m to help them do so. And small housebuilders, struggling to find the qualified bricklayers, carpenters and other key staff that are in short supply in the UK, can look forward to a new construction skills fund that will open for bids in April.
As Philip Hammond said in 2017, he would only be delivering one fiscal event a year.
So we’ll all have to wait until next autumn to find out whether this Chancellor is going to put some of his new-found bounce into the annual Budget, and give us all a bit more of a lift than he did today.