Spring Budget 2023: What do our experts want to see?

Here at Y-PERN we boast economic experts from across the 12 Universities in Yorkshire. The Spring Budget is nearly upon us and we thought it could be useful to ask our experts what they would like to see announced tomorrow.

Professor Dave Spicer, Director of Business and Community Engagement in the School of Management at the University of Bradford and a Y-PERN Academic Steering Group Member would like the budget to support small businesses:

The budget needs to consider the support available for small and medium sized business in light of the current cost of living crisis and the current economic challenges. Whilst support exists for SMEs development (notably through Help to Grow), there remains a significant concern in the SME community that the budget will not really address their needs. SMEs we  have been speaking to want to see more support for the challenges they are currently facing.

In this regard resilience is key – those SMEs who have weathered the experience of the last few years know this is key and continued support for the same is recognised as important. SMES thrive through flexibility, adaptability and innovation, and our research through Covid showed how these traits were significant in driving superior performance through Covid and beyond. The challenge is that many of these firms are limited in their capacity and resources to continue to maintain their business in the face of continuing pressures financially.

Professor Alex Nunn, Dean of Research at Leeds Trinity University and Y-PERN Academic Steering Group Member, would like:

Help with childcare costs through an uplift in Universal Credit payments has been promised already.  This is welcome but challenges remain and the prospect of this being matched by greater expectations for recipients may prove ineffective.

Measures to improve the skills offer and support for the unemployed rather than merely relying on benefit conditionalities are badly needed. This is not a matter of being nice or nasty to people that any one particular section of the electorate may see as deserving or otherwise.  Rather, it is absolute economic necessity that will benefit all of us through increased growth, increased tax revenues and a more socially just society.  The support needed is wide-ranging.  Part of this is about well-designed and accessible training matched to areas of skills growth in the economy.  However, it is also about other forms of support, notably mental health services and services supporting people with other needs such as addiction.

Special measures to incentivise older workers back into the labour market may be needed but there are some signs that this is already happening. However, the issues in our labour market that led to the Great Resignation were a long-time in the making.  Measures on the supply-side of the labour market will increase skills in the workforce, but reforms are also needed to improve pay, work quality and employee wellbeing.  Long-term structural change is required across a range of policy areas.  These include workplace cultures, improving employer skills utilisation and training provision.  They also include housing issues; housing costs have played an increasing role in overall inequality over a period of thirty years or more.

A new approach to migration – Successive governments have whipped-up an unhelpful political climate on migration and then responded to that climate by both rhetorically and materially constraining migration, especially, but not only, by ending EU free movement.  There are many reasons why this is problematic. Restoring the prospects for growth is just one of them. 

The full blog can be found at https://yorkshireuniversities.ac.uk/2023/03/14/action-needed-in-budget-to-deal-with-workforce-shortages/

Professors Andy Brown and Gary Dymski from University of Leeds Business School and Y-PERN Directors have a focus on the cost of living crisis and decentralisation:

For us, the most pressing budget issue is the cost of living crisis. Whilst energy prices are coming down they remain very high. Large numbers of people in the region and nationally are having to choose between eating food and heating their homes, at a time when social and health services are at or beyond breaking point. This is not a sustainable position for the UK. Therefore, the budget must sustain help on energy bills whilst laying foundations for longer term investment in people, places and institutions.

To take the example of institutions, there is a need to recognise that the UK suffers from being one of the most highly centralised nations in terms of fiscal and monetary powers. The budget should initiate a process that empowers localities and regions to undertake place-specific investment in skills, amenities, and more generally in communities. The scale of place-based funding required is an order of magnitude higher than previous initiatives such as, for example, the Towns Fund. Doing this now will avoid the much higher future costs of a scarred and significantly diminished workforce, and will enable future cohesive, place-led, collaborative responses to the economic, social and environmental challenges we face.

Professor Vania Sena (Chair of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise at University of Sheffield) and Dr Richard Whittle (Policy fellow at University of Leeds and Y-PERN Chief Policy Fellow) both want to see digital inclusion high on the list of priorities. Richard writes:

I would like to see in tomorrow’s budget a significant push toward creating that holistic digitally savvy, technologically adept economy. This is in line with current thinking as regards significant strategic investments in Artificial Intelligence, advanced manufacturing, robotics. However, my focus is on (for want of a better phrase) ‘digitally levelling up’ the whole of society. This means targeting the millions who do not have digital access or digital literacy, in a programme of digital inclusion that may not be as glamourous as high-tech investment but will have higher and surer returns. The benefits, if such a programme is done properly will be innumerable. Countless small productivity gains in the traditionally low productivity microbusinesses which dominate our economy. Time saving labour enhancing tools not making these businesses world leading (or any other political buzzword), but simply helping them run a little better, a little more efficiently and generating a little more reward for their usually sole employee. Booking an appointment online goes from being a difficult thing to do to an effortless time saving process, accessing services online becomes second nature and all of society benefits from the provision of labour saving online tools. Perhaps we join more technological societies in judging appropriate telehealth services as conveniences rather than with suspicion and cries of ‘return to work’. Likewise a technologically comfortable populace is better able to navigate the pitfalls of our ‘digital by default’ economy. Misinformation and Dark Patterns may cause less misery, our susceptibility to online scams can decrease.

For the full blog post please see https://yorkshireuniversities.ac.uk/2023/03/14/spring-budget-2023-needs-a-digital-focus/

Prof Sena adds:

Digital inclusion is such an important area for Yorkshire and the Humber. There are rural areas not connected to broadband or where the connection is so poor it is of no use. Additionally there are inner city areas which are simply not connected in any meaningful way as there is little incentive to invest. The role of government should be in ensuring that these areas receive this much needed investment from companies such as Openreach. There are obvious benefits from such investment including: better educational outcomes, lower loneliness amongst isolated peoples and even business rate generation.

Professor David Spencer from University of Leeds Business School would like to see a bold industrial strategy emerging from tomorrow’s budget:

Compared with recent budgets, the forthcoming budget is likely to be a calm affair. The focus will be on bringing back ‘fiscal discipline’ and ‘balancing the books’. Old tropes will be rolled out. They will mask the seriousness of the challenges facing the UK economy. The cost-of-living crisis and higher inflation loom large but there are deeper problems linked to persistently low investment and productivity together with stagnant real wage growth. These problems should be the priority of the Chancellor.

The scope for the government to increase public spending has risen with larger tax receipts. It will be wise in the circumstances if the government looked to develop a bold industrial strategy – one that focused on stimulating business and public investment, levelling-up in a serious not just rhetorical way and facing the challenges of climate change. COVID-19 taught us that governments can work to protect people and society – this learning should help inspire policy thinking and action beyond the pandemic. That way we will avoid the mistakes of austerity that have so damaged the UK economy.

Dr Andy Mycock from the Y-PERN Academic Steering Group and Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield wonders where levelling up has gone:

The Spring Budget will be of particular interest to those who have charted efforts by the UK Government to rebalance or ‘level up’ the country over the past decade or so. It is uncertain as to whether ‘levelling up’ will endure as salient political term or will it be discarded to join the Northern Way and the Northern Powerhouse. ‘Levelling up’ has somewhat diminished in its policy profile since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister when compared to Boris Johnson’s tenure in office. But while Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, has proven reluctant to frame developing plans for fiscal devolution and local economic growth in terms of ‘levelling up’, it is a term which will continue to resonate in political and policy circles until a new phrase is introduced.  

Criticism has proven widespread concerning the application process, scale, allocation, and purpose of the two rounds of ‘Levelling Up’ funding held thus far. The contradictory approach of the UK Government to devolution in England has seen ministers strident in their rhetorical support for radical devolution of power and autonomy for regional and local authorities while they also tightly audit investments across the country. Regional and local government leaders complain the competitive application process as creating a ‘begging-bowl culture’ controlled by central government, which some argue has been skewed towards select constituencies in the hope of partisan political returns at the ballot box. Questions have also been raised about the limited scale of funding, both in terms of its potential to address significant and embedded inequalities across the country and when compared with investments made by Germany and others. The impact of inflation has also seen beneficiaries of ‘levelling up’ funding scale back projects or put them on hold.  

Andy’s full thoughts can be found at https://yorkshireuniversities.ac.uk/2023/03/14/2023-spring-budget/

Neill Barnett, Y-PERN Policy Fellow based at Leeds Beckett University looks at the regional picture:

It seems the Chancellor will have some leeway, but the demands and hopes for funding are, following years of Austerity, and the impact of inflation on budgets, limitless. With respect to broader policy issues, changes to child care have been trailed in the press, and an increase in the cap on what can be claimed back for childcare for those on Universal Credit would be a start. With respect to the cost of living/ energy crisis, continuation of the price cap subsidy is essential, but more targeted support would be better- via the introduction of a Social Tariff.

With respect to Combined Authorities- Tracey Brabin’s letter of 31st January to the Chancellor sets out a series of measured ‘asks’ and it is not necessary to add to these- they would largely apply to South Yorkshire as well. Leaving aside specifics, key issues to address, are the lack of long-term funding and certainty, especially for transport and ‘net zero’ investment, the need to move to direct, ‘single pot’ funding directly from the Treasury, and the need to move form short-term, single-pot funding and competitive bidding.

Neil’s full blog is available at https://yorkshireuniversities.ac.uk/2023/03/14/budget-2023-quick-thoughts/

Patsy Gilbert, Vice Principal of Leeds Conservatoire and Y-PERN Academic Steering Group Member stresses that the budget must not forget the creative and cultural sectors:

Yorkshire boasts creative and cultural sectors with enviable international reputations, I would urge the Chancellor to provide support to allow us to continue to produce world leading creative content. Two of our graduates – Will Dawson and Tristen Taylor – recently launched OpenBack a podcast which discusses the highs and lows of the music industry. They detail the struggle faced by new entrants to the creative industries, especially in the initial stages when trying to build a network and portfolio. If the Chancellor needs ideas of where to start supporting my sector, I’d really recommend this podcast! We need to see targeted investment in the latest technologies and training across the UK so that we can compete internationally and to inspire the next generation of artists. Inequality is pushing back the opportunities for everyone to explore the arts and cultural sectors if they want to.

Inequality and hardship is growing in our university communities, we would dearly like to see support for students in the cost of living crisis. We know that many students in UK universities are struggling to complete their studies. Not surprising when their financial support has only risen by about 3% with inflation at 10% It’s not only our students who are impacted though, recent graduates having studied through Covid and its restrictions, which particularly impacted the cultural sector, are also facing restrictions in their ability to work across Europe. The business model for our graduates is primarily freelance, it would be great to see targeted support in this area to allow our sectors to maintain and grow their international standing.

Professor Kiran Trehan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement at the University of York and a Y-PERN Academic Steering group member seeks targeted strategic investment to support businesses across the region:

We are facing multiple crises and our businesses need urgent help. In this budget the Chancellor has a real chance to support businesses in the current economic climate. It would be great to see a review of business rates, particularly in the light of pressure on energy bills. Rapid and agile reform could be a real boost to our business community. Whilst we rightly focus on support now, we should not forget the longer term perspective. Our businesses merely surviving is not enough, they need to grow and have the help and resource to do so. It is this growth that helps level us up and provides the context for increased living standards. We need tailored investment and business support particularly in digital, research and innovation to support the scale up of SME’s. Business support is needed for our SME backbone as well as our larger firms. I would like to see investment for new start up’s particularly in relation to enhancing digital skills and capability.

The landscape of business support requires a more holistic approach and policies that are more responsive in providing access to funds and sustained support needed to grow. We can point to chronic skills shortages hampering business growth and investment. I would like to see diverse and accessible opportunities for new skills development so that SME’s can invest strategically in growth opportunities, particularly in areas of green and sustainable growth. Our talent base may be considerable but the structural issues holding back large sections of our workforce need addressing. Whether it is issues around public transport preventing people from seeking opportunities outside their immediate locality, or around childcare cost and accessibility making work not pay, we need to see target investment allowing potential to be fulfilled. I would urge more tailored focus on female enterprises on the back of the Rose review.

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