Industry gives its verdict on Autumn Statement

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has delivered his Autumn Statement. Image courtesy of GOV.UK

Industry has continued to give its verdict on the Autumn Statement - with the Chancellor's announcement receiving mixed views from the infrastructure sector. 

Tax cuts for working people and British business headlined Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Autumn Statement for Growth’ yesterday. 

Aimed at building a stronger and more resilient economy, the Chancellor set out a plan to unlock growth and productivity by boosting business investment by £20bn a year, getting more people into work, and cutting tax for 29 million workers – the biggest tax cut on work since the 1980s.

But for the built environment, the announcement has failed to bring big wins for the sector. 

Peter Hogg, UK cities director at Arcadis, said: “Freezing spending gave the Chancellor a ‘small government dividend’ of £27bn to spend. By cutting that dividend into 110 slices meant that many of them were pretty thin.

“National Insurance cuts, a duty freeze on alcohol, the pensions triple lock and benefits increases will be the headline-grabbing crowd pleasers but was this a statement for business?

“£4.5bn for manufacturing and clean energy is certainly worthwhile, albeit sliced and diced into a wide range of individually small measures rather than betting the farm on fewer, more transformative initiatives.

“Making expensing permanent will be welcomed by business and will certainly benefit the economy as a whole – though services firms will benefit less than more capital-intensive businesses.

“Equally, measures on devolution were welcome and highly targeted, and it was positive to see at least some new Investment Zones.

"The extension of the Freeport tax free extension was an interesting reminder of the lack of pace that has affected at least some Freeports and a reminder that progress needs to be made.

“The Chancellor made a big play of his ‘planning reform’ but, cynically, his proposal is little more than applicants paying more to get the service they should have got anyway; to think that this is going to turn the dial on housing delivery and development is fanciful.

“Overall, little that the Chancellor did was wrong but, in attempting too much he diluted the impact of his £27bn dividend.”

John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “Speeding up the planning process for major infrastructure projects is vital to achieving net zero, improving climate resilience and boosting economic growth.

“Government’s endorsement of a strategic spatial approach to the energy transmission network is a big step forward, and we welcome the ambition to get decisions on major projects made within two and half years, down from the current average of over four years.

“To achieve this ambition, government must urgently finalise a new set of clear, updated national policy statements for energy and transport and progress the other commission recommendations it has adopted. 

"While there are indications of progress on promoting greater access to environmental data, government needs to go further to provide firm commitments and timeframes for data sharing and to support the development of mitigations that benefit multiple projects in key sectors and locations.

“Industry and investors will be watching to ensure government moves from commitments to action. There’s no time to lose.”

John Ord, UK&I energy business director at Stantec, picked up on the energy elements of the Autumn Statement.  He said: “Running through this year’s Autumn Statement was an ambition to meet the UK’s potential to become a green energy and advanced manufacturing superpower.  

“These are sectors we’ve long known can drive growth and where we are well placed to succeed – but there have traditionally been significant barriers, from access to grid capacity and challenges raising finance and investment, to fundamental questions over the government’s commitment to transforming the UK’s energy and sustainability industries.

“The Chancellor has aimed to grow confidence by tackling these concerns – and our sector will welcome the commitment to improve the planning system, financial support for green industries and renewable energy, and generally more long-term, cross-department strategic thinking.  

“It will now be essential to lock in this positive progress, work as a sector with government to develop the details of the long-term strategy, and secure commitment that this will be maintained and supported by current and future administrations.”

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, said: “It is positive that the Government has restated its commitment for East West Rail and indicated support for West Yorkshire Tram.

“Given Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was an advocate for the full HS2 scheme, now that Phase 2 has been summarily cancelled by the Government – damaging railway suppliers’ confidence – we and rail suppliers want to see tangible progress in delivery on any schemes it takes forward.

“However, this Autumn Statement was clearly a missed opportunity to confirm wider funding for rail, whether from the plethora of schemes in the new ‘Network North’ proposals, the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline, the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, or a rolling stock pipeline. 

“Given we were told the funding for HS2 Phase 2 was to be reallocated to other more immediate transport schemes – and with a General Election likely to be less than a year away – it would be good to now hear the Government’s plans to push on with delivery of the rail work in its various plans.

“This ongoing uncertainty across rail investment is genuinely harming UK suppliers, who are halting recruitment, looking overseas for work – meaning skills are being lost – and seeing jobs and factories jeopardised. 

“So we strongly urge the Government to fund and push on with a clear and visible pipeline of work, whether related to infrastructure or rolling stock, which not only means an enhanced railway in the future but also better value for money for the taxpayer.”

Mark Reynolds, co-chair, of the Construction Leadership Council, said: “The Construction Leadership Council warmly welcome the focus on speeding up infrastructure delivery in yesterday's Autumn Statement.

"We are pleased to see alongside the Autumn Statement an announcement of a rapid review of productivity in the construction industry as well as an infrastructure ‘Star Chamber’ reporting to the highest level of government.

"In our recent productivity report, we estimated a potential £45bn of savings and additional value could be generated by improving productivity across the sector.

"Following our engagement with the Treasury, we noted the positive change in direction on R&D Expenditure Credit for subcontractors in relation to ‘contracting’ out. However, we still require urgent clarity relating to which contract types this impacts and who will still be able to claim relief in the construction supply chain.”

Hilary Leevers, chief executive of EngineeringUK, said: “The Chancellor highlighted the importance of skills in his autumn statement, yet there was little to address widespread issues in the skills systems. 

“We welcome the modest announcement of £50m for engineering apprenticeships but are concerned that this is limited to a two-year pilot to explore ways to stimulate training in these sectors and address barriers to entry in high-value standards.

“As outlined in our recent report ‘Fit for the Future’, we need large scale investment in getting more apprenticeships for young people off the ground now and to ensure that the country has the engineering and technology workforce it needs for the future. We urge the government to take a bolder approach.”

Ben Harwood, managing director of national real estate consultancy Naismiths, said: “This statement is okay for business, but in terms of benefits to the construction industry specifically there isn’t much in it – albeit glimmers of potential. 

“Mr Hunt states that the economy has outperformed expectations since last autumn. This paints a picture of somewhat improvement, and while inflation and interest rates have reduced and this is positive, it is as expected for property and construction stakeholders. 

“The industry has been riding this wave for some time, and as rates have been stabilising this has naturally meant an uptick in construction activity. But this does not negate the fact that all sectors of construction have and continue to feel the brunt of a still uncertain and turbulent market, especially the residential development sector, which I would have liked to have seen more support in the autumn announcement by way of more certainty for homebuyers. 

“More measures for first time buyers if announced, would have had a trickle down effect on the private open sales market – providing more assurance to new build residential property developers and in-turn financers of large residential schemes. 

“For large residential portfolio holders and residential retrofitting contractors, the announcement regarding a new permitted development rights consultation, which would allow any house to be divided into two flats, provided the exterior remains unaffected, is welcome. This will help to open up more property investment and development opportunities and increase affordability for buyers or renters of such schemes for cheaper flat properties when compared to a house.  

“Investment zones support announced is in favour of infrastructure and manufacturing, which I believe later down the line will see advantages in property growth through the building of more advanced facilities. Building on Mr Hunt’s commitment to support R&D is absolutely welcome.

“The ‘changes worth £280m a year to simplify and improve R&D tax reliefs’, will go some way to helping also drive digital innovation in construction businesses, something that Naismiths will benefit from in support of the continued development and investment of our Naismiths Analytics platform.

“Finally, the uplift in the minimum wage by 9.8% and a cut of 2% to the main employee National Insurance rate is a clear pull for laboring talent generally on lower wages and will help to support a skills short industry.”

Ted Frith, COO at GLIL Infrastructure, the £3.6bn Local Government Pension Scheme-backed infrastructure investment fund, said: “The lack of planning resources has been a source of frustration for infrastructure investment. 

“Many developments have faced long delays, and some even lose their investors, depriving the country of the infrastructure upgrade the UK needs to supercharge economic growth.

“The government’s proposed changes will hopefully deliver more certainty and stability and give investors the confidence they need to support investment in the UK.”

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