Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I shall aim to achieve a balance between despair and euphoria in my contribution.
There is a great deal to commend in this Budget, against a background of rising employment, falling inflation and rising economic growth, which is now expected to be 2.7% in 2014 according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The OECD forecasts that the UK will grow faster than any other G7 economy in the first half of this year, and further forecasts show that real wages are set to rise over the years ahead. Of course, that has been accomplished with some tough decision making, which has had an impact on many people, and there is still much to do to ensure that we have both a sustained stronger economy and a fairer society.
I am particularly pleased about the increase in the income tax threshold, a key Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge. A £700 tax cut for more than 20 million people has been delivered by April 2014, with the 2.7 million lowest-paid people taken out of tax altogether. Now the threshold is set to rise to £10,500, benefiting working families, along with the increased support for child care.
I welcome greatly the measures to help pensioners—I am not sure whether I should declare an interest. I am proud to be part of a Government who will be remembered for having done so much to reform pensions—single-tier pensions, the triple lock, auto-enrolment and now the change in the Budget. The help for savers is to be welcomed, as are more measures to clamp down on tax avoidance.
I also welcome the Government’s adding to the measures that have previously been announced to support business, such as increasing tax incentives to invest in new equipment and carry out research and development, and increasing the level of financial support for exporters. As other Members have mentioned, ensuring that business has skilled labour is all-important. Some 1.5 million apprenticeships have already been created, and now there is new money to create even more.
Local government clearly has an important role to play in supporting businesses to grow and create jobs, which of course are also related to tackling our housing crisis. Many council leaders of all political colours fear that by 2015, the successive cuts to local government expenditure might result in a cliff edge, with serious further cuts to the local services that they can provide. There are also likely to be more increases in regressive charges, despite the innovative and transformative work that is taking place and the extra money that has been pledged for the integration of health and social care services.
The proposed changes to councillors’ pensions are deeply unpopular. I simply do not understand why, for example, council leaders of working age should be seen as volunteers, when in today’s world they are working full time and using many professional skills. I understand that local social fund money has been transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that it may be removed from council budgets in 2015. That would cause me great concern, as it is a vital safety net.
We are faced with a deep housing crisis, and there are heartbreaking situations, typified in my constituency mailbag, involving families in unsuitable accommodation. Although I welcome the measures to address the crisis announced in the Budget and previously, and although I acknowledge the Government’s record on building houses, particularly social houses, I have two main questions. First, will the measures be sufficient? Secondly, although I appreciate that we must have both demand and supply measures to increase the number of homes delivered each year, what monitoring will there be of the Help to Buy scheme, given the fears that it might result in undue upward pressure on house prices, particularly in London and the south-east?
I welcome the moves to allow garden cities—or perhaps towns, if we are talking about 15,000 homes—to be developed with a local trigger, providing much-needed housing and offering an alternative to filling in every space in existing urban areas. I welcome any moves to bring forward publicly owned land for development, and I wonder what progress there has been on community land auctions. We have heard further calls for “brownfield first” today, and I am sure that there is much publicly owned land that would meet that criterion. I welcome the pilot study on development benefits. The new town option provides the opportunity to capture community benefit to provide long-term facilities and infrastructure for a settlement and its surroundings, and potentially to provide affected individuals with a share in any benefits.
With any development it makes sense to include self-build and building by smaller and medium-sized companies. That introduces competition and, I hope, will stimulate good design—something much needed, as a previous speaker said. I note further measures to support social housing—again, so much is needed—and I believe that neighbourhood plans are really important, although they need more resources. Planning should be bottom up; we should be working with our communities to help tackle our housing crisis, allocating sites within our local community, and delivering when we truly understand our local community’s housing needs. Finally, I welcome the announcement of the extra money on potholes, which I believe will deliver real change very quickly.