Budget 2015 – A Productive Budget?

Yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne announced his latest budget – is it a productive budget?

On the eve of George Osborne’s sixth budget as Chancellor, a new poll listed the slogans voters dislike the most. ‘Long term economic plan’ was number 4 on the list. With little room for manoeuvre, yesterday’s Budget continued the ‘long term economic plan’ mantra even if actual policy has diverted somewhat from the original objectives set out in 2010.

Overall, there were few major changes which will directly impact Northern Ireland businesses.

The Chancellor sporting a grey tie was a further clue that this Budget was unlikely to provide any blockbuster announcements. Overall, there were few major changes which will directly impact Northern Ireland businesses – the main Northern Ireland reference related to the devolution of Corporation Tax which can now be switched on from April 2017 subject to the conditions of the Stormont House agreement being met.

Key points for the Northern Ireland economy

The other points of direct relevance in the Budget were:

  • Employers National Insurance contributions will be scrapped for employees under 21 years of age with contributions also waived for firms employing young apprentices from April 2016.
  • Annual tax returns will be phased out with all individuals and small businesses being allowed to pay tax during the year via a digital account - this move should bring further simplicity for small firms, allowing them to pay tax when it suits them.
  • A commitment was made to retain increased tax relief for capital investment, although the details have yet to be provided.
  • Income tax for farmers will be based on a 5 year average figure from April 2016 so ups and downs in income can be smoothed out. This is a positive move for our large agricultural sector.
  • A package of measures was announced to support the North Sea oil and gas sector – good news for Harland and Wolff and its subcontractors.
  • Further support for the creative industries via enhanced tax reliefs for film and TV productions as well as the creation of a new Video Games Prototype Fund – these measures will complement the work of NI Screen and others in growing this sector locally.
  • Improving the accessibility of R&D tax credits for small businesses will be prioritised – R&D credits already sit alongside support for R&D from Invest NI, these changes should make it even easier for small firms to engage in R&D.
  • Increased resources will be made available for UKTI activities in China plus additional trade missions to other markets focused on regional strengths.

Other local budget impacts

Otherwise, the biggest local impacts will be felt through the changes to the taxation of individuals and other duties. The personal income tax threshold is due to rise to £11,000 by 2017/18, whilst a new Help to Buy ISA will provide a substantial tax break to first time buyers, further boosting demand in the housing market with potential knock-on benefits for the Northern Ireland construction sector. The Chancellor also announced that the application of the fuel duty escalator has been put on hold again, providing a welcome benefit to Northern Ireland businesses with substantial transport costs.

Outlook for the UK economy and the public finances

As well as the tax and expenditure changes announced in the budget, the updated outlook for the UK economy and the public finances is also of importance to Northern Ireland businesses. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility now expects UK growth to be 2.5% in 2015 (a marginal uplift on the previous forecast), partly driven by the positive impacts of falling oil prices feeding through to lower inflation which is boosting consumer spending and investment. Stronger growth in the rest of the UK is a fillip to local businesses, given the UK is the largest external sales market for Northern Ireland firms.

The rise in sterling is creating significant pressures for Northern Ireland firms in competing in export markets.

The positive effects of lower inflation and higher growth have been outweighed to some degree for local businesses by the strengthening of the pound, particularly against the euro. The rise in sterling is creating significant pressures for Northern Ireland firms in competing in export markets. Other data released this week for instance showed that the output of the Food, Drink and Tobacco sector in Northern Ireland is down 8.1% year on year. The challenge to increase sales in existing external markets as well as develop new markets is as significant as ever for businesses here.

A budget that backs business

On the public finances, ‘austerity’ has dominated the political debate since 2010. When George Osborne made his first Budget speech, he aimed to eliminate the structural budget deficit by 2016. Five years on, the annual budget deficit remains close to £100bn and substantial further savings are projected well into the next Parliament. Whilst Northern Ireland will receive an extra £11m from Westminster in 2015/16 via the Barnett Formula, this is a very modest sum and the bigger picture is that public expenditure here is facing a significant squeeze in the medium term.

Budget 2015 - final thoughts

In summary, whilst the Budget included a number of positive items for business here, the economic and fiscal outlook reinforced the scale of the challenge to secure a more prosperous Northern Ireland. With a General Election now less than 50 days away, a further budget before the summer will almost certainly be required to be digested irrespective of the outcome.