Last edited 19 Mar 2015

Budget 2015

Rebekah Paczek from snapdragon consulting takes a wry look at the budget and what it means for property and construction.

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Having dangled more teasers than a troupe of burlesque dancers, George Osborne stood up to give his final pre-election Budget – thankfully dressed as a dull man in a suit rather than a burlesque dancer. Dull and calming seemed to be the image Osborne was trying to cultivate, on the basis that dull is reassuring and reliable, just like magnolia paint or the shipping forecast.

Much like when Tony Blair declared that it was ‘not a day for soundbites’ but that he felt ‘the hand of history on his shoulders’, Osborne had declared that this was not a Budget for pre-election gimmicks and then continued to put forward a politically charged pre-election Budget designed to appeal to those waving and floating voters who may be inclined to vote against the Tories. Nothing you can rely on a politician more for than to say one thing and do the other.

Speaking of which, there was no sign of Michael Green on the front bench, or is that Grant Shapps? Presumably he was off flogging his secrets on how to get stinking rich whilst campaigning against housing development on Panshanger aerodrome where he keeps his private jet. Still, so long as we’re all in it together… Not that Ed ‘two kitchens’ has fared any better this week. Sometimes you wonder if politicians actually do have media and PR advice.

And so to the Budget itself. A Budget for hard workers, small businesses, families and all those others who the Tories really do need to convert to the cause if they are to win the General Election in 50 days (which will feel like purgatory if Sky News continue their painful daily election focus pieces).

Osborne started with the usual smoke and mirrors and political spin. Quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone listens anymore and if they do I don’t think they take notice. Anyway, it was a bit difficult to hear at first as Labour appeared to have rent-a-mob in to disrupt the whole process led by Michael Dugher (he of the ongoing Jeremy Clarkson feud). Someone should point out to politicians of all sides that no one really cares about the Punch & Judy show, they care about how it actually affects them.

Apparently UK growth forecast has been revised up against a backdrop of the whole Eurozone being revised down. More guff on trade deficit, overall stats etc. Rather than setting the stats out it is probably more useful to remember that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Notable for Absence…

Nothing whatsoever on the NHS (other than the accompanying report emphasising the need for efficiency savings), defence, education or any of the other frontline services which have come under fire recently and which are very close to the hearts of voters as they go into the ballot booth. Although if you want to run a free school then you’re fine.

In general, substantive announcements, investment (other than trebling church roof funding) productivity measures were all absent – effectively the measures which fuel economic growth.

The lack of big ticket detail does, however, limit the ability for opponents and analysts to tear the Budget apart and undermine the messages of the Conservatives in this critical run up to the General Election.

What We Knew…

  • Well, we already knew that the Government was likely to increase the threshold at which you start paying income tax. This goes up from £10,600 (effective as of April this year) to £10,800 effective from next year and £11,000 the year after. At the same time, the threshold for paying 40% tax increases to £43,000 from 2017/2018 and £50,000. So supporting people at the bottom and in the middle/top of the income scale. A nice big tick in the election box…
  • We knew savings would be in there somewhere and how they were! Four major steps in savings – 5 million pensioners to have access to their annuities, tax only to be charged at the marginal rate; more flexible ISA allowing people to be able to take money out and put it back in without losing tax free entitlement to be available from this autumn; creating a new help-to-buy ISA topping up every £200 with £50 – massive boost for first time buyers to be introduced this autumn up to a maximum government contribution of £3,000; a new personal savings allowance taking 95% of tax payers out of savings tax, the first £1,000 of interest on all savings to be tax free, reduced to £500 for higher rate tax payers.
  • Pension pots to be raided reducing the lifetime allowance from £1.2m to £1m affecting less than 4% of pensioners. Lifetime allowance to be indexed from 2018. Rejected the idea of reducing annual allowance to pay for a cut in tuition fees as it will apparently affect police officers, teachers and health workers. This is clearly designed to spike the Labour plan to deliver a cut in tuition fees through exactly that method and will leave Ed Balls on the defensive.
  • Minimum wage to rise to over £8 by the end of the decade with an unprecedented increase in the paltry apprentice minimum wage (currently barely enough to pay for a daily travel card in London).
  • Corporation Tax will come down to 20% in a few weeks – this is not new, it has been announced several times over the past two years, no new cuts and still no cuts for small businesses. NI to be abolished for employees under 21 and from next April to be abolished for apprentices. Small Business Rate relief to be extended but, as expected, reform to be looked at with a major review announced this week.
  • Abolishing the annual tax return and replacing it with a digital tax account, simplifying the process for millions of businesses and individuals as well as abolishing Class 2 NI contributions for the self-employed in the next Parliament.
  • Beer duty cut again by 1p/pint and cider duty cut by 2%. Duty on Scotch whisky and other spirits cut by 2% - more pubs saved and more jobs supported apparently, not to mention more alcoholics.
  • Fuel duty increase cancelled with petrol duty frozen, “£10 off a tank with the Tories” – not bad for an election slogan but has serious potential to go wrong.

Oh the Humour…

Just to prove that politicians are actually also stand-up comedians, Osborne made a joke about the debt incurred by Gladstone and WW2 now being paid off but that the debt incurred by Gordon Brown will take a little longer to pay off. Yes, it was hilarious I know and no, it wasn’t funnier if you were actually watching it. It really does make you wonder if earth has already been infiltrated by extra-terrestrial life and they’ve all congregated at the Palace of Westminster.

Osborne also relished the opportunity to have a real dig at Miliband with an announcement into a review of inheritance tax and deeds of variation with a report to be published by the autumn. Miliband, who benefited significantly financially through a deed of variation on his fathers estate, looked uncomfortable at this point.

This was then followed by more hilarity with a reference to Ed Milibands two kitchens and the ability to remotely control fridge freezers, stop George, you’re killing me…

Avoidance and Evasion

Osborne clearly keen to emphasise that this is the Budget for the many and not just the few – just like the Black and White Ball the other week. Still, lucky the Budget came after that particularly glamorous fundraiser as the Dave and George show may find they have a few less fans after today with the announcement (expected) that the diverted profits tax to come into effect next month but also that further measures against tax avoidance and evasion will be introduced to raise £5bn along with new criminal offences for tax evasion and an increase in the bank levy to 0.21%.

Land and Property

Apparently a further 275,000 homes will be provided between April 2015 and March 2020 with more new affordable homes than during any equivalent period in the last 20 years. Presumably this is based on predictions and is therefore a wish list rather than a confirmed figure. Every party seems to make these strident claims and generally none of them ever transpire. Still, it’s a good story and Labour don’t seem to have any credible plan to increase housebuilding other than reinventing the wheel they invented and disposed of when last in government.

The Budget also announces a consultation on CPO in relation to promoting development of brownfield land.

The Government seems to have recognised that it owns a huge amount of unused assets in land and property, much of which is poorly managed. A new central body will be established to own, manage and dispose of assets – particularly disposing of land for housing. The model will be operational by March 2017 subject to legislation.

The MoD in particular is highlighted as holding the potential to generate significant efficiencies. A charging system will be introduced to incentivise the rationalisation of the estate and disposal of land more efficiently.

In London, as previously trailed, new investment will be brought forward in transport and infrastructure, new powers for the Mayor and a new London Land Commission to focus on developing homes with an initial £1m to develop a land database and £7m to support the Croydon Growth Zone. Specifically at Brent Cross, £97m of funding and 50% of business rate growth will be ringfenced to support the regeneration of Brent Cross.

However, not to pull down the rest of the UK a new Northern Powerhouse initiative will be launched including Wales and the South West. Although the measures may not go as far as people were hoping. 100% business rate deal to be given to Cambridge as well as Manchester and potentially extended to other local authorities. Power over transport, skills and business support will also be devolved to Sheffield (suspect the hand of Nick Clegg was involved in this given that polling shows he is at risk of losing his seat).

Further confirmation of 20 housing zones and 8 enterprise zones which could deliver up to 45,000 homes – although I’m not sure that there is any proof that the existing housing and enterprise zones have done anything for either housing or enterprise. Combined with the new ‘Help to Buy ISA’, which is a fantastic saving scheme for first time buyers – I for one may set one up for my not quite yet born child – but it still rather misses the fundamental point that there isn’t a lack of demand for housing but a chronic lack of supply. Disappointing that nothing was announced on PRS or house building specifically.

£60m investment is also to be put into an energy research centre in the Midlands (part of the Northern Powerhouse which appears to mean anywhere in the UK that isn’t London) and £100m to be invested in the race for driverless technology.

And the rest…

Titbits to the armed forces mainly focusing on veterans and memorials. Important but not sure that will pacify the top brass in the military who are deeply concerned about overall defence cuts and the impact that this will have on the future security of the UK.

Support for air ambulances increased – shout out to the member for Castle Point on that score (a vulnerable Conservative seat).

Support for North Sea Oil with cuts to taxes and investment in research – that would never have happened if Scotland had voted ‘yes’, spikes the SNP and gives a sweetener to Scottish voters ahead of the election. Although useful to note that this only takes tax levels back to the same as 2011 so more of a correction than a boost.

Resources from bank sales to be used to pay down the national debt, not given away in a windfall – responsible financial management. Osborne sounding another pre-election warning bell that the reduction in national debt will only continue if the country sticks to the measures set out in this Budget – a challenge to Labour to clarify their own economic plan and a pre-emptive strike at undermining anything which they may come up with. The Conservatives are clearly hoping that the ballot booth wobbles will play in their favour.

And now trying to appeal to farmers – clearly unsettled by the plethora of ‘Vote UKIP’ billboards across the country – the Treasury announces that the period over which they can average their profits for income tax will be increased from 2 to 5 years from April 2016. Election, is there an election? I had no idea?!

And Osborne finished with perhaps the worst line in political speech history, labelling the country as “Britain, the Come-Back Country”. That should be grounds for resignation purely on that basis – or at least the sacking of the speechwriter.

Ed Miliband then went on the attack with marginally better, but still cringeworthy, jokes. Basically refuting all of the figures and pointing out the more negative ones which Osborne omitted to mention (at the same time as omitting any which are uncomfortable for the Labour Party) ahhh, smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors.

Miliband sought to cast doubt on the commitments to spending savings through departmental and welfare cuts by declaring that it would be the NHS and social care which will actually be squeezed instead. The NHS looks set to be the touchpoint for Labour in the run up the election.

As ever, the devil is in the detail and we are not perfect – hard to believe I know. We will see what the respective analysts and broadsheets make of it over the next few days and whether it is election heaven or hell for the Conservatives.