Chancellor George Osborne’s 2016 Budget offered little in the way of major technology-related initiatives.
But, dig a little deeper into the announcements and it is clear the Tory government is still keen to pursue the digital objectives it set out in the Autumn Statement last year.
While Osborne focused mainly on tax cuts, re-jigged deficit targets and sugar taxes, he also touched on IT-related issues such as broadband, coding and spectrum availability, and made some headline-grabbing commitments to advance the development of driverless cars.
Connecting the country
Building on existing schemes to support mobile and broadband infrastructure, the government is to increase grant funding for ultrafast broadband in the South West to £14.5m.
It will also establish a new Broadband Investment Fund, which will see it work with private-sector companies to drive the growth of alternative broadband networks, though details of how much will be put in the fund were not disclosed.
The government will also push ahead with exploring 5G deployments by setting up a review to ascertain the benefits the technology can bring to the UK.
While it is still early days for 5G, the government said it wants to deliver a 5G strategy by 2017 based on the review, which will be carried out by the National Infrastructure Commission.
This 5G push will include the development of a network planning tool, which will be trialled in Bournemouth in 2017.
Mobile connectivity is also on the government’s agenda, with moves to reduce planning restrictions for existing telecoms infrastructure and allow for larger ground-based masts to be built.
The government also committed to making 750MHz of valuable public-sector spectrum in bands under 10GHz available by 2022.
The idea is to free up the spectrum so that businesses and other organisations can use it to create new communications technologies. Some 500MHz has been slated to be available by 2020.
Helping small businesses
Like all businesses, tech firms will have welcomed Osborne's commitment to drive down corporation tax to 17 percent by April 2020.
The Chancellor said this tax cut will be offset by a much more rigorous pursuit of tax avoidance and offsetting by big firms and international companies.
“It will level the paying field which has been tilted against our small firms,” said Osborne. “Britain is blazing a trail, let the rest of the world catch up.”
He also announced plans to double the reduction of business rates so that by April 2017 some 6,000 small businesses will not have to pay any business rates at all.
This is good news for technology start-ups and small businesses looking to grow into larger companies. Meanwhile, sole entrepreneurs who are tapping into the sharing economy, such as those offering accommodation via Airbnb, will benefit from having a tax-free trading and property income allowance of £1,000.
Osborne also expressed the government’s desire for the UK to remain part of the European Union, arguing that leaving would be detrimental to the economy; a message echoed by British technology organisations.
“Britain will be stronger, safer and better off in a reformed European Union,” said the Chancellor.
Having introduced coding into the national curriculum as part of the last coalition government, the Tories aim to continue building up the digital skills needed by the technology industry. To this end, Osborne outlined plans to establish a panel of experts to shape the creation of the £20m Institute for Coding competition, which is designed to help young people not only gain digital skills but learn to code with security in mind.
The government is also pledging funding to support adults who wish to study any qualification up to PhD level, with loans being introduced over this parliament, particularly for second degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.
Big data and driverless cars
The government is committing funding to pioneering technologies such as driverless cars, and has committed £10m to create a new hub for data science to make use of big data from the public and private sectors so that the Office for National Statistics can produce more accurate, timely and innovative statistics.
TechUK chief executive Julian David said the Budget contained several announcements that would be welcomed by his organisation's 900-plus members.
“Investment of £10m in a new hub for data science will help the public and private sector make better use of data, which has the potential to reduce cost and improve public services,” he said.
“TechUK members will be pleased to see the government’s ambition for the UK to be at the forefront of the development of autonomous vehicles, alongside support for the sharing economy.”
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