Chancellor George Osborne was optimistic in his update to MPs on the health of the UK economy during his autumn statement today, but life is likely to remain unpredictable for businesses for some time to come.
George Osborne is only offering the lightest hand to businesses as he gingerly navigates the economy across thin ice. He is gambling that net export income and new investment will percolate its way through the system before domestic demand drops due to the cuts in public spending and the impending increases in VAT and employees’ National Insurance.
While his statistics might look encouraging at a macro level, I wonder if he truly appreciates how finely balanced it is on the front line.
The uncertainty, even among those of us that are doing relatively well, makes it very difficult for any business owner to commit to significant new investment or employment. Most businesses don’t have the option of suddenly opening up markets in China and India if demand falls at home.
The availability of finance will remain another significant inhibitor to growth. Osborne shouldn't believe the bank's spin when they say they are supporting small businesses. I have it on good authority that despite what the leaders and PR people might be saying, the people who work in the dark offices behind the scenes are scared rigid of making a mistake: credit is extremely tight as a result. If we need finance to grow in 2011, we will need to look elsewhere for the investment we need.
One of the best things George Osborne could do in the next Budget is to make it even easier and more attractive for private individuals to invest in small businesses. If the banks won’t do it, somebody else has to fill the gap.
While he is at it, Mr Osborne should also look at increasing incentives to employ people by extending the National Insurance concession for new businesses that was announced in the last Budget to the whole of the UK (the South East, London and the East where notably excluded). He should also stop limiting the allowance to start-ups, as it is the established businesses that will offer the most secure employment opportunities - particularly for young people.
Finally, it is time to update the concession on VAT for marketing materials. At the present time, printed promotional materials are zero rated for VAT. This needs bringing into the 21st century by extending it to websites, email marketing and pay-per-click advertising. Any disincentive to businesses marketing themselves effectively needs to be urgently removed.
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