Looking to plug a £55 billion hole in public finances, the new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt went beyond what many anticipated from his Autumn Statement – making a series of announcements that could have positive implications for the landscape sector

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt leaves 11 Downing Street to deliver his Autumn Statement to parliament on 17 November 2022. Picture by HM Treasury

In his Autumn Statement on 17 November 2022, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt boosted the government’s Levelling Up initiative – a flagship policy of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto that seeks to spread prosperity across all English regions – with the promise of a further £1.7 billion for priority local infrastructure projects. The successful bids for this second round of the Levelling Up Fund will be announced before the end of the year.

As part of the Levelling Up agenda, there was also welcome news on further transfers of powers from central to local government. New ‘trailblazer’ deals devolving powers to deliver levelling up in areas such as skills, transport, and housing with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities were promised by early 2023.

The Chancellor announced there would be more mayoral devolution deals, coming soon, covering Suffolk, Norfolk, Cornwall, and the North East of England. All were close to agreement and would increase the proportion of people in England living under a directly elected mayor with devolved powers to over 50%.

Reinforcing another important difference between this government and the outgoing Truss administration, the Chancellor finally laid to rest the prospect of development within National Parks and other protected areas. The new government plan to refocus its Investment Zones initiative to concentrate on a limited number of the highest-potential knowledge-intensive growth clusters, driving growth while maintaining high environmental standards. He thanked those local authorities which had submitted their proposals to his predecessor, but confirmed that  these expressions of interest would not be taken forward.

In support of high streets – always a vital barometer of the country’s social, economic, and environmental well-being – the Chancellor announced that business rate bills in England will be updated to reflect changes in property values since the last revaluation in 2017. From next April, this will have major impacts on retailers, hospitality businesses, and local authorities. A package of targeted support worth £13.6 billion over the next five years will support businesses as they transition to their new bills, protecting businesses from the full impact of inflation and supporting high streets. English local authorities will be fully compensated for the loss of income as a result of these business rates measures.

What this all means for the landscape sector is hard to tell, given the lack of detail as to how departmental budgets will bed down, how inflation will impact budgets, and what manner of savings the new government will pursue. Two of the departments that directly impact the landscape sector – the Departments for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities  (DLUHC) and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – look to have modest variances in funding over the next three years, and bearing in mind the prospect of a General Election at the latest in 2025.

The Chancellor’s announcement to freeze some personal tax allowances, VAT, and the increase in the living wage came as no great surprise. All of these will have major implications for the overwhelming majority of landscape practices and their staff, set against the wider background of rising energy and food prices, the climate crisis emergency, and the war in Ukraine.

Recruiting and retaining staff continues to be an acute problem across the economy – not just within landscape. Despite the consistent cry of businesses, practical solutions to this challenge remain elusive.

It’s interesting, then, that the Chancellor should announce the appointment of Sir Michael Barber to advise him and the Secretary of State for Education on the implementation of current skills reforms. These include the promise, made in the 2021 Skills for Jobs White Paper, for businesses to be actively engaged in determining education provision and curricula in their area. Levelling up will prove almost impossible to deliver if we simply don’t have the people with the skills needed.

If you’re facing difficulties due to the rising cost of living, hardship support is available through the LI’s charitable partners the Architects’ Benevolent Society (ABS) and Perennial. Find out more.

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