Philip Hammond placed a package of measures intended to address the UK’s housing crisis at the heart of a significant giveaway Budget delivered against a backdrop of significant downgrades in the broader economic outlook.
Abolition of stamp duty for most first-time buyers is the flagship policy that generated headlines, supported by a wider £44bn package of housing measures. It comes accompanied by more money for the NHS (£2.8bn), Brexit preparations (£3bn) and an assortment of measures aimed at tackling the productivity crisis, many of which are plundered from the forthcoming Industrial Strategy.
Taken together, these measures represent a significant fiscal giveaway worth around £25bn, at least in the near term, with more fiscal tightening scheduled for the tail end of the Parliament. One significant story that is emerging is that the UK’s much discussed productivity crisis is now manifesting itself in a significant downgrade to projected growth. This, alongside downward revisions for average earnings (predicted to be below inflation for some time) paints a very bleak macro-economic picture.
In political terms, the real test of this Budget will rest on the reception received by its housing package. Eagle eyed policy wonks have already spotted an OBR assumption that the stamp duty cut will simply inflate house prices, primarily benefitting those already on the housing ladder. The Chancellor and his allies will no doubt point out that this measure is part of a wider package that seeks to address the challenge from several angles. However, the credibility of the whole Budget would be significantly dented if the flagship policy is deemed a dud.
In other areas, the Chancellor has generally found at least some money to respond where political pressure was being exerted. The NHS will get an immediate boost this winter, £1.6bn to follow for 2018-19 and the rest in 2020. This will no doubt be broadly welcomed but there will inevitably be some comparisons drawn between these figures and the £3bn made available for Brexit preparations (quite apart from the £40bn that is reportedly on the table in the Brexit negotiations).
The Budget speech also served up an interesting preview of the themes due to be included in the forthcoming Industrial Strategy. Placing the UK at the forefront of a technological revolution and becoming a leader in areas such as electric and driverless vehicles, artificial intelligence and 5G is central to the Government’s post-Brexit economic vision. It will also be intended to address concerns over productivity.
Previous criticisms of Hammond have often centred on a supposed lack of political antennae. On Wednesday he has tried to dispel that impression by finding money for almost all the areas on which he was under pressure. The question may be whether he has sacrificed his reputation for fiscal responsibility in the process.
The full statement is available here.
For further analysis on the economic outlook and sector-by-sector headline announcements, please click here to read our report.