By James Beatton, Partner at law firm Cripps
With the election looming, somewhat predictably the Chancellor went for a budget aimed to please individual voters rather than entrepreneurs. There were a few measures of potential interest to business owners (and particularly for those operating in the technology sectors), but a lot of the good news was in the form of consultations and future reviews rather than concrete measures.
Review of Business Rates
Although actual changes to business rates will be someway off, the government has at least taken some notice of complaints from businesses, particularly smaller retailers, that the ancient system of levying rates on commercial property is in urgent need of reform and has launched a consultation.
Enterprise Investment Schemes and Venture Capital Trusts
Some potentially positive, if small, changes here with the announced removal of the requirement that 70% of funds raised under SEIS must have been spent before EIS or VCT funding can be raised and an increase in the employee limit for knowledge-intensive companies from the current 249 to 499 employees.
Help to Grow Programme
The government has announced a pilot “Help to Grow” programme, aimed at making available up to £100 million of finance to growing businesses through loans of between £500,000 and £2 million.
Funding for Science, Innovation and Technology
The Chancellor announced a commitment of £40 million for the development of demonstrator programmes, business incubator space and a research hub to develop applications for Internet of Things technologies in health and social care and Smart Cities. In 2015-2016 Leeds and Greater Manchester will become “Northern Hubs” by undertaking a 'Sharing City' pilot scheme , in which transport, shared office space, accommodation and skills are joined together and residents are encouraged to share services - including transport, public spaces, health and social care. Research into intelligent mobility, particularly driverless cars, has been ear-marked to receive £100 million in funding.
The government also plans to give support to businesses in the FinTech sector by establishing a supportive framework for legitimate digital currency businesses and helping FinTech firms to gain access to banking data.
There were also plans announced to improve accessibility to Research and Development tax credits with potential improvements coming over the next 2 years.
George Osborne announced his desire to see ultrafast broadband made available to “nearly all” UK premises (although this has faced criticism for not being enough). The government will also expand its broadband connection voucher scheme (which offers grants of up to £3,000 to businesses to improve their broadband connections) to a further 28 cities, and confirmed that £600 million would be made available to enhance 4G mobile network connectivity. The government is also looking at the development of 5G technology which is essential to the development of the Internet of Things.
Missed opportunities but some comfort from the status quo?
The Chancellor recognised the value of the annual investment allowance in encouraging UK businesses to invest - noting that the scheduled reduction from £500,000 to £25,000 from 1 January 2016 would not be acceptable to businesses - but failed to provide clarity on the future level of this valuable incentive. Also, although he announced a doubling of the resources available to UK Trade and Investment to support potential exporters to China, focussing on advanced manufacturing, transport, financial services, healthcare and life sciences he has been criticised for failing to issue a consultation on the introduction of targeted tax relief for UK businesses for the initial costs of researching and entering into new export markets.
Although the government is ending the January annual tax return for individuals and businesses, introducing a new digital version supposedly bringing greater flexibility and clarity, most SMEs have already transferred to digital self-assessment submissions, cloud accounting and online banking and many will be disappointed that the government has not taken the opportunity with this budget to implement recommendations from the Office for Tax Simplification (OTS), including the raising of the thresholds for transfer pricing and for quarterly instalment payments, aimed to reduce the regulatory burden for mid-size businesses.
Other positive measures had been previously announced in the autumn statement – the abolition of employer's National Insurance contributions (NIC) for employers of under 21s and for young apprentices from 6 April 2015 and 2016 respectively and the fall in the main rate of corporation tax to 20% in 2015/2016.
But whilst there may have been missed opportunities with this budget, perhaps business owners can take some comfort from the maintenance of the status quo which could be seen as a vote of confidence in the position of SME’s and owner-managed businesses in the UK.