Spring Budget 2023: What it means for businesses and UK tech
After Liz Truss’ “mini-budget” in September, widely regarded as a disaster, the chancellor and prime minister have been hurrying to reverse policy and alleviate fears that the UK economy will be left behind.
If the autumn statement was about U-turning on the failed Truss-Kwasei experiment, and rebuilding credibility, the Spring Budget was focused on continuing to steady the ship and stay the course.
With households being squeezed by a cost-of-living crisis and inflation down only slightly from record highs, expectations were for a Budget that delivered no surprises, focused on getting back on track and, if you are a Conservative, hoping that the economy will be growing again by the next electoral cycle.
This mission translated into several flagship policies, from a huge expansion in free childcare to the scrapping of limits on tax-free pension savings. Time will tell how successful these will be, and there’s no doubt that reform in childcare has been long overdue.
But, with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicting the sharpest fall in living standards since the 1950s, there’s still some way to go.
Beyond support for households, the spotlight was on what the government is planning to do to help businesses. In particular, for a tech and startup sector on the rocks since Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) needed to be bailed out last week, all eyes were on how the government planned to deliver on its promise to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030.
Let’s look at a couple of areas that are important for the tech industry to be aware of.
It was expected, but chancellor Jeremy Hunt formally announced the creation of 12 new investment zones to “drive business investment and level up” the country.
The West Midlands, Greater Manchester, the north-east, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, East Midlands, Teesside, and Liverpool will all welcome a zone. There will also be at least one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
The zones will be focused on high-level research centres, such as universities, and are part of a mission to make the UK into “the next Silicon Valley”.
Quantum and artificial intelligence (AI)
Given the Chat-GPT fever that seems to have hooked Silicon Valley and beyond in recent weeks, it was almost inevitable the chancellor would weave AI into his plan to transform the UK into a tech powerhouse.
He did just that, announcing an ‘AI sandbox’ to encourage ground-breaking research into the technology. Other plans include trialling faster approaches to help AI businesses get “cutting edge” products to market, such as changing the rules that govern intellectual property, while the Manchester Prize, a £1m pay-out up for grabs every year for the next decade for the best innovator in AI on UK soil, was also unveiled.
But the chancellor didn’t stop there, with a program to plough £2.5bn into quantum computing by 2033 also revealed. This will focus on both the engineering and research investments, as well as funding for businesses that are investing in quantum technologies.
But, given the very real threat that quantum computers pose to present-day cryptographic security, even before these machines arrive, detail on funding was murkier. We wait with baited breath on how the government plans to tackle that particular issue.
What was missed?
Plenty more was announced, including reforms to the R&D tax credit for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). If an SME spends 40 per cent or more of their total expenditure on R&D, they will be able to claim a credit worth £27 for every £100 spent.
But there were also some notable absences when it comes to the tech sector. In particular, there was no mention of a semiconductor-related strategy or funding. Given the criticism the government has faced in this department, its omission was quite surprising.
Overall, Hunt delivered a Budget that many expected, but coupled with the government’s swift action to bail out SVB and protect UK tech, the road ahead for the sector looks more promising than it did last week.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on how things develop.