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John Simpson

Budget brought fair outcome for Northern Ireland

John Simpson


Push: Rishi Sunak on Budget day

Push: Rishi Sunak on Budget day


Push: Rishi Sunak on Budget day

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has listened to the forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and presented an ambitious budget for the year 2021-22 which makes for a modest economic outcome in the next 12 months.

Looking further ahead, the Chancellor suggests that the public sector deficit will be reducing but it remains a formidable sum.

Indeed, his forecasts for the scale of borrowing in the next three to five years are on a scale that until 2020-21 would have seemed irresponsibly large. However borrowing is expected to gradually reduce.

The underplayed theme of the budget for 2021-22 is that Government borrowing remains very large and, for fear of causing too large a fall in economic activity, the Chancellor has argued that to sustain the economy he has justified a continuation of the surge in borrowing legitimately launched in 2020.

As was to be expected, reducing borrowing in the circumstances of 2021 would have been unpopular and the rationale for continued high levels of borrowing therefore makes considerable sense.

Repaying even a part of the over £300bn borrowed in 2020 is a huge challenge. Since the need for extra spending has not yet ended, borrowing to provide further relief whether for furlough funds, extra business lending, or supplementary income support to people who have seen incomes sharply reduced is an acceptable political judgment.

The Budget has delivered an unusual mixture of reliefs from pandemic problems as well as a mixture of tax changes containing early and immediate easements along with the commitment to raise corporation tax to 25% (from today's 19%) in two years' time.

The freezing of personal allowances before taxpayers pay income tax, or pay at the higher rate, is a neat way of avoiding criticism of a breach of an election 'no change' commitment.

For Northern Ireland, the Budget can be interpreted as fair, if not verging on the side of being better than expected.

The Barnett consequentials alongside the receipt of the Treasury financed pandemic easements seems marginally favourable.

There is an emerging dichotomy. The UK Budget arithmetic implies that the private sector of the economy will recover strongly during 2021. That recovery justifies the Treasury forecast that the public sector should be supportive for some months before special public sector spending can be restrained.

Hence the Budget announcement that the furlough scheme will end halfway through the year, the extra relief for Universal Credit can be reversed and several of the other special schemes can be phased out or ended.

The critical assumption, affecting Northern Ireland, is whether the recovery in the private sector will be as strong here as across the rest of the UK.

That assumption may not be merited.

More than ever, economic progress could be affected by fear of political instability.

With the Brexit agreement now in place, the expectation was that settled business conditions and the new EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement would allow gradual adjustments to the new market conditions.

The divergent interpretations of how the Northern Ireland Protocol is being implemented is an unhelpful disrupting factor just when so many businesses have been hoping for some certainty about any adjustments that are necessary.

In the next few months businesses will be responding to the investment incentives built into the budget conditions.

The forthcoming increase in corporation taxation and the unusual exceptional tax incentive to bring forward potential investment plans will produce an early boost to company development plans.

The special allowance based on investment spending is exceptionally large and would have tested EU rules on State Aid if the UK had still been part of the EU.

This combination of fiscal changes should be a critical factor for businesses in NI encouraging them to take the advantage of the 'best of both worlds' positioning as part of the UK economy and with continuing easy access to the EU markets of 27 other countries.

The UK budget is structured to anticipate much reduced disruption caused by the pandemic and an easing of lockdown restrictions.

Later in 2021, that change should be followed by a re-opening of many closed businesses and an increase level of employment.

The impact of that recovery remains uncertain.

Within the UK the economic recovery will leave a seriously changed business landscape. Many businesses, particularly in retailing and hospitality, will continue to cope with major changes in consumer activity.

The search for a 'levelling-up' outcome cannot be confidently asserted. Northern Ireland, as ever challenged by its peripheral location and, now, challenged by the uncertain outcome of the protocol, may face a more restrained economic recovery.

This is a direct challenge to the local institutions.

The NI Executive must play an active role ensuring political stability and be prepared to adjust and adapt the devolved arrangements to enhance economic progress.

Belfast Telegraph