With the chancellor due to announce his budget in March, businesses have shared their hopes and expectations.

In addition, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, alongside other chambers nationally through the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), is calling for the chancellor – Jeremy Hunt – to use the 2024 budget to ‘work in partnership with business to develop a sustainable growth plan’.

Among the recommendations in the chamber’s submission are:

·       UK government to match industry-led funding of £3million for planning qualifications to help plug the lack of local resources.

·       Ministers to commit to fund business-led Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) beyond the current 2025 cut-off point to at least 2028.

·       For the VAT registration review to be restarted to remove the existing cliff edge.

·       UK government to reform business rates to make it a tax that incentivises growth.

·       The chancellor to introduce a new internationally competitive tax-free shopping scheme.

The recent findings from the BCC Insight Unit's initial business survey of 2024 underscore the immediate need for budget action.

Concerns have been raised by 43 per cent of businesses with a turnover below £85,000, specifically regarding the challenge of expanding revenue due to VAT obligations.

Additionally, 26 per cent of businesses indicate alterations to their plans for upgrading or opening premises in response to business rates.

The aftermath of the 2023 rates revaluation has resulted in increased payments for 38 per cent of the surveyed businesses.

Cumbria Chamber emphasised the unprecedented challenges faced by businesses amidst multiple economic crises.

The BCC's Quarterly Economic Survey for Q4 2023 revealed a slight improvement in business confidence, but most businesses still report no positive changes in sales, cash flow, or investment.

Cumbria Chamber highlighted7 a collaborative initiative between the BCC and Aviva aimed at enhancing skills and capacity in local authority planning departments.

This initiative seeks to generate £3million to fund the recruitment of at least 100 new entrants into the planning sector.

Suzanne Caldwell, managing director of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “Economic conditions continue to be challenging for businesses.

“While businesses of all sizes are continuing to work hard to address the challenges they can’t do this alone and want to work in partnership with Government to get the UK economy growing again.

“The budget is an opportunity to accelerate help for business.

“Our recommendations are solution-focused.

“Chambers are actively working with industry to develop a UK-wide, private sector funded programme to train more planners to work in local planning authorities, to boost their planning skills and capacity.

“Alongside our fund, we’re calling for the chancellor to provide more funding to LPAs in greatest need of skills.

“That will support the authorities, to employ the additional graduates and upskilled professionals we are training.

“Unlocking our planning system is crucial to economic growth.

“BCC’s latest research shows that many SMEs are struggling because of business rates, and are limiting their expansion plans because of the VAT threshold.

“The Chancellor should use his statement next month to announce plans to make rates fairer and restart the VAT registration review.

“Attracting, retaining and developing people with the right skills is crucial for business. But far too many employers are struggling to do that.

“Business-led Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) are key to resolving skills shortages.

“They are already making a huge difference in communities across England – including here in Cumbria.

“LSIPs need long-term commitment and funding, to ensure people can access the training they need for great jobs and to keep employers at the heart of skills provision.

“A new internationally competitive tax-free shopping scheme would help turbocharge the UK’s retail and hospitality sectors, bringing benefit to all corners of the UK through economic growth and tax revenue.

“The government must signal that the UK is open for business.

“With the clock ticking before the general lection, next month’s budget must outline the sustainable growth plan businesses are crying out for.”

Guy Harmer, who helps run the Cumberland Inn in Alston, said his expectations for the upcoming budget are low.

“I don’t expect anything to be good news. There is plenty that could but won’t happen, I don’t think ministers the government are champions of small businesses,” he said.

Mr Harmer added: “There are plenty of calls from our trade bodies about cutting VAT for trade premises, it would be helpful, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

He said the government is more interested in helping big businesses that have the backing of strong lobbyists while taking as much as possible from smaller companies.

“We were well catered for during Covid, but to be frank, none of us would still be here if we weren’t.

“Having moved on from that, we’re back to the old game of targeting small businesses.”

He said he expects to be putting prices up in response, but noted the slowing of bill increases as being helpful for the inn itself and for the price of beer he buys.

Jane McDaid, who helps run a group dedicated to an ongoing campaign to buy back a pub in her village to community ownership – the Samson Inn – is confident the pub will be revived, but said work needs to be done to make job retention work

Their bid of £140,500 from 450 different pledges was made by the January 31 deadline, and last week the group met with MP Guy Opperman to discuss the future.

They will have to wait until March 11 to see if a grant from the Plunkett Foundation is successful.

On the budget, Ms McDaid said: “It’s very hard for employers to make sure we have the staff, and transport is so difficult.

“You must have a car, so that’s a risk for any rural business.

“The other issue is the number of staff. With more retirees coming into the Lake District, and holiday homes on the rise, the lack of young people (who can work) can affect business.”

She and her group are also encouraging people to go out more and support local trade after insular living became a norm during Covid.

She added: “All costs have increases, you have to manage your resources.

“It’s a tough time for any business, because as you have increased costs you want to increase your prices.”

One way in which they hope to curtail the increase in costs is to encourage local businesses to provide the inn with goods, such as meat and pies.

Overall, businesses will be looking for security in the upcoming budget, after a turbulent few years since Covid and the cost-of-living onslaught that saw many businesses big and small fold, an all-round call for proper growth action beckons forth.