While some of the announcements in yesterday’s Autumn Statement were welcome, it also included much to be concerned about.
Extra money to encourage private house-building and the abolition of letting agent fees are welcome, but expecting the private sector alone to make up the shortfall in housing is completely unrealistic. With interest rates and gilt yields at historically low levels, the Government could, and should, borrow significantly more to invest in the social homes our country desperately needs.
The recent changes to tax rates on second homes have failed to slow the rate of house price growth, putting the dream of home ownership out of the reach of many people. The Government should start to phase out Buy-to-let mortgages, which have contributed significantly to the unsustainably high cost of houses in Britain since their introduction in the late 1990s. Rather than widening the right to buy scheme to include housing associations, which will only worsen the crisis, ministers should abolish the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme altogether, as it continues to chip away at the stock of available social housing while making it difficult for councils and housing associations to borrow to replace them.
More money for high speed broadband is obviously welcome, as is additional funding for the road network, as it does neither the environment nor economy any good to allow our highways to become permanently jammed.
Cash to ensure the East-West railway can be delivered is good news, but it seems Mr Hammond has found no extra resources to ensure previously announced electrification plans can be delivered. Also, the continued emphasis on selective devolution, and occasional handouts, is no alternative to long-term political and economic devolution to set free local and regional economies from central control.
It is also extremely concerning to see the UK’s race to the bottom on Corporation Tax. Corporate tax levels in Germany and the USA are over 30%, yet the Conservative Party seems content for British businesses to pay barely half this amount in a disturbing attempt to turn the UK into the world’s largest tax haven. If the Conservatives really wanted to help British Businesses grow and thrive, they could substantially reduce local business rates immediately that charge companies simply for existing and have contributed to the decline in many high streets. In addition, ministers ought to investigate taxing large multinationals based on turnover, rather than profits, so that they can no longer avoid paying their fair share with clever accountancy tricks.
The Government has failed to take the urgent steps needed to fund social care properly, to protect the services that care for elderly and vulnerable people, or to address the misery and loss of a decent life facing many.
The Chancellor should have committed to introducing the real Living Wage, rather than persisting with George Osborne’s watered-down substitute, which leaves many workers short-changed. The real Living Wage would make a serious impact in the battle against poverty as well as reducing people’s reliance on complex means-tested benefits.
Finally, the Government’s insistence that it can make a success of Brexit, in the teeth of all available evidence, is deeply worrying. While ministers cannot ignore the referendum result, refusing to entertain even the possibility of a second referendum, regardless of the terms of exit or any future change of heart by the British electorate, is nothing short of reckless. All available economic evidence shows that the best way to improve productivity and grow your economy is for it to have unfettered access to the widest possible market. Rather than doing dodgy deals behind closed doors to keep companies like Nissan in Britain, ministers should be focusing all their efforts on keeping the UK in the Single Market.