It’s fair to say it’s been a 12 months like no other. Coronavirus has created an unprecedented situation that has changed our lives so dramatically and had a long-lasting impact on the business community across many, if not all sectors.
Yesterday’s budget announcement from the Chancellor Rishi Sunak demonstrated the long-term challenge that COVID-19 will continue to pose the UK economy and there was recognition from Mr Sunak that certain sectors would sadly be impacted longer than others and would need that extra bit of support.
It was indeed pleasing to hear an optimistic Chancellor state that the UK’s economic recovery could be 'swifter and more sustained' than first anticipated – but of course, the next few months will ultimately be crucial in achieving this as the vaccine programme continues to reach more people and, in turn, hopefully creates a solid base for business too.
Therefore, the Chancellor’s announcement that a 5% reduced rate of VAT for the tourism and hospitality sectors would be extended to the end of September, is welcome news. In addition, the news that £400m will be made available to help arts venues in England reopen is a positive step and will provide a platform – and hopefully confidence – to a sector so badly hit by COVID-19, with further grants of up to £18,000 also available to hospitality and leisure businesses.
Non-essential retail businesses will be able receive grants of up to £6,000 per premises too, supporting any immediate challenges faced as retail settings begin to emerge from the current lockdown, with 100% business rate holidays in England continuing from April until June this year.
Mr Sunak also confirmed that the Government’s furlough scheme – which currently pays 80% of an employee’s wage – will be extended until the end of September. Companies will however be asked to contribute a further 10% in July increasing to 20% in August and September. There is also a commitment to providing more funding support to those who are self-employed.
Clearly, it’s a package of continued support built around a measured return to ‘normality’ in-line with a successful vaccine roll-out, something we are of course all eager to see in Oxfordshire.
In the lead-up to the COP26 event later this year, the Chancellor also announced a number of new initiatives that aims to support a move towards a zero-carbon future.
The announcement of the UK’s first-ever infrastructure bank – which will be given a remit to finance the ‘green industrial revolution’ – is a positive step, with the view of helping to tackle climate change and promote clean growth.
This drive is one that matches a key guiding principle within the Oxfordshire Energy Strategy which aims to secure a ‘smart, modern, clean energy infrastructure’.
Mr Sunak also announced a £68m competition which aims to back the implementation of future energy storage prototypes and technologies – details of this are set to be announced later in the spring and could be appealing to our many companies in Oxfordshire who are experts in clean energy.
As the Local Enterprise Partnership for the county, one of our key areas of focus is supporting businesses to understand the benefits that apprenticeships and similar training schemes can bring – with this mind, further incentives encouraging companies to create apprenticeship schemes is a positive step.
Any employer who takes on a new apprentice between 1 April and 30 September will receive £3,000 per new appointment, regardless of the age of the employee – this, in addition to a £1,000 payment already provided for new apprentices appointed between the ages of 16 and 18.
The government will also launch a £7m fund from this July, with the aim of supporting businesses to set-up and expand ‘portable’ apprenticeship provision.
We absolutely continue to encourage Oxfordshire-based businesses to investigate options available to them through apprenticeship schemes and would welcome and encourage companies contacting our OxLEP Skills team to receive further advice and guidance.
In terms of our own role, we remain determined to play a key part in ensuring that the county’s businesses are able to run as efficiently as possible and remain productive both during the pandemic and beyond.
We will continue to champion the Oxfordshire economy and also aim to secure further government investment that will benefit the county’s businesses for many years to come, in turn, supporting our ambition – set out in the Local Industrial Strategy – to elevate the county to become one of the world’s top-three innovation ecosystems by 2040.
Once further details of additional Government support are published, we will inform you as how Oxfordshire businesses can access it.