One of the set piece events at Westminster each year is the Autumn Statement but the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond this week abolished it, in favour of moving to an annual budget, as they do in most advanced countries. It was always a political gimmick - created by Gordon Brown - and is no longer needed. Labour seemed unable to offer any kind of coherent or plausible alternative and the Shadow Chancellor’s response was the worst I had heard in 11 years in the House of Commons. Their approach is that the Government has spent and borrowed too much so the answer is to spend and borrow a lot more!
Peterborough is still flourishing - youth joblessness has dropped by more than any other town in England, unemployment in my constituency is now just 1.9%, housing affordability is amongst the best in the country and average annual earnings are now almost £30,000, only a little lower than the English average. Amongst the doom mongering nonsense one sometimes reads in the media about the UK’s short term economic prospects (prefaced by the words “….despite Brexit…”), it’s nevertheless true that it is the UK that is set to be the fastest growing economy in Europe in 2017. However, we are still lagging on productivity, innovation and for the want of a proper coordinated industrial strategy. The Chancellor’s announcement of a £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund is badly needed for high value infrastructure and research and development and not just in London and the South East. The announcement of the upgrading of the A1 is excellent but should just be the start of local investment plans and Peterborough’s university plans will surely be the next big project? London is a one off city state and wealth and prosperity needs to percolate across the whole country.
For me, my priorities in the Autumn Statement were infrastructure growth as well as a commitment to low business taxes, welfare for those in most need, improved broadband roll out and new housing and especially real financial help for the “Jams” – people who are just about managing and we have a fair number of such folk in Peterborough. To that end, I welcomed a freeze in fuel duty, the rise in the tax free personal allowance, abolishing unfair tenants’ fees and an increase next April of the National Living Wage from £7.20 to £7.50 per annum – all policies that will help working families on lower incomes. There’s no doubt we need to crack the housing crisis too and a new £2 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund will help deliver the homes that are needed specifically by young people.
Money for new digital infrastructure will be especially welcomed by people and businesses in the rural parts of my constituency: A recent broadband/mobile phone coverage residents’ survey, undertaken by me, showed real concerns at slow responses and poor coverage in Eye, Thorney, Newborough and Peakirk.
We still have massive challenges ahead like funding social care, pension provisions and the NHS but the Autumn Statement was a steady and reassuring exercise in sound money and steadfast governance in torrid times.