SMEs need sustainable policies to help secure future
What do small businesses want from the Budget? All the small business pressure groups have their hobby horses, but talk to businesses themselves and you'll find a common theme. What many want above all else is a stable and sustainable business climate that allows them to plan with confidence.
In practice, that means two things. First, small businesses need to know that the recovery of the past two years is sustainable - that the UK can show resilience in the face of headwinds such as the continuing drama in the Eurozone.
The Chancellor can't guarantee this tomorrow (however, much he would like us to think recovery is in his gift), but he can set out a framework that gives Britain a fighting chance - a deficit reduction plan that is flexible enough to respond to emerging pressures.
The second constituent of stability is something the Chancellor can control. If George Osborne really wants to help small businesses, he should resist the temptation to tinker further with complicated tax breaks and reliefs.
These schemes, ostensibly designed to support growing businesses, often just muddy the waters - not least because they invariably don't make it through the next Budget without amendments or even abolition. The case of the annual investment allowance (AIA) is a good example. This tax relief allows small businesses to reduce the cost of capital investments such as plant and machinery by setting the spending against their corporation tax bill. The relief began the current parliament worth £25,000 a year, but was subsequently hiked up to £250,000. That increase lasted just three months, before another Budget saw it doubled to £500,000. And at the end of this year - unless the Chancellor announces something to the contrary - it will go back down to £25,000.
Capital investment is all about preparing for the long- term. How can small businesses do that in the context of this short-term chopping and changing? If you're an engineering company thinking about investing £100,000 in a plant next year if the recovery in the market for your products proves sustainable, what do you do? Do you bring forward that investment in order to get the tax relief even though you're not sure yet whether the spending is viable, or do you sit on your hands and hope the more generous relief is extended?
Using tax as a tool of economic policy artificially skews the decisions businesses make.
That's the point, of course - by making the AIA more generous, the Chancellor hoped to encourage investment that might not otherwise have been made.
But the better option would have been to set a level for the AIA and guarantee it for an extended period, enabling businesses to make choices based on their own circumstances rather than in the hope of bagging a tax break before it disappears. Chancellors naturally need something to announce during their big moment in the House. But the rhetoric that makes good copy in the short-term invariably gets in the way of small businesses thinking about their prospects over the next five years, or even longer.
Everything the Chancellor says must be taken with a pinch of salt because with the election around the corner, there is no guarantee he'll be around to do anything about what he announces. Small businesses can't be expected to plan on the basis of policy that may not survive the next six weeks. All of which is to say that the Chancellor's boldest Budget move would be to do as little as possible.
The temptation to offer a string of goodies must be overwhelming - and every other Chancellor in recent history has succumbed in the same situation - but small businesses aren't after jam today. They're focused on tomorrow and every other day thereafter.