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The Good, the bad and the Ugly – reflecting on the Budget, March 2021

Delivering a budget during a pandemic was never an enviable task, particularly one that tries to plan for the unknown world beyond Covid. Possibly inevitably, it is a mixed bag – much needed, continued emergency support for the next few months; useful investment in some, more innovative areas; and some big holes, particularly very little mention of key public services such as health, education and care.

Geographically, it was a good to see Plymouth’s bid to become a Freeport succeed. Although the details are yet to be published, the Freeport will make Plymouth an attractive city for businesses, particularly in the marine and manufacturing sectors. Similarly, Cornwall is in the first round of pilots for the UK Community Renewal Fund (formerly Shared Prosperity) bringing opportunities to test how things will work beyond EU funding.

Investment in all things digital and tech is high on the agenda, including £520m Help to Grow scheme to boost digital adoption in SMEs and £375m Future Fund: Breakthrough to help UK tech scale up. Again, the devil will be in the detail, but both should bring much needed support for businesses, including purpose driven enterprises, to build on all they have learned this year from enforced working online and find ways to take the best and move on. From a creative point of view, it was good to see an extra £300m to top up the Culture Recovery Fund and make sure the vital cultural and creative sector survive until restrictions do finally end.

Skills and support for young people also featured heavily with the new £2.9 billion Restart Scheme launching this summer to provide tailored support to over 1 million unemployed people. Although the Kickstart Scheme, was mentioned, there was no indication it would be extended. Let’s hope it isn’t another initiative that takes a lot of hard work to set up and is axed just as it delivers real value. £7m was announced for a creative industries apprenticeship scheme – welcome news, especially if lessons have been learned about the need for flexibility to reflect contract and freelancing working that characterises much of the sector. The rather grand sounding Plan for Jobs clearly aims to support young people who have certainly been very hard hit by the pandemic, but it is hard to see behind the headlines, to know if it includes flexible, innovative approaches that will be essential as we all deal with the unknowns of the next year or two.

Levelling up regional eco-systems is a positive step forward and good to see new structures, such as the UK Infrastructure Bank will be based in Leeds. Unfortunately, it is going to take significantly more radical shifts to address the structural inequalities that are evident in the north/south and east/west divisions in health, wealth and prosperity across England. Positives, like the £150m Community Ownership Fund to help local people take over local institutions and retaining Social Investment Tax Relief are all steps in the right direction, but a long way from the measures needed to create a fairer, more equal society.

Good too to see investment towards net zero targets, particularly the development of green energy innovation schemes as part of the £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, the issuing of the UK’s first sovereign green bond and a new wave of investment into energy innovation. 

However, while we still have families relying on food banks, low wages for key workers and disproportionate wealth amongst the 1%, we have a very long way to go.

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