Rishi Sunak’s Budget and pandemic balancing act; what it means for North – The Yorkshire Post says

HOW times change. A year ago Rishi Sunak was hastily rewriting his first Budget within hours of its delivery as the Covid pandemic began to paralyse the world.

Fast forward 12 months and the Chancellor will be hoping that this Budget – one that tries to balance Covid support against the need for wider financial responsibilty – passes the test of time.

Presented clearly, and confidently, it will have reaffirmed, in the eyes of many, the Richmond MP’s hard-earned reputation as a pre-eminent politician.

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It was, nevertheless, a Budget that Mr Sunak did not want to deliver – he said the level of Treasury support, which now stands at an eye-watering £407bn, was “unimaginable” last March as Britain was forced into lockdown.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street to deliver his Budget.

Yet, given the latest £65bn outlay from extending furlough and other policies to protect jobs and family incomes, this Budget ultimately depends on the continuing success of the Covid vaccine programme.

It also explains why many schemes, like furlough and the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift, will extend to September when Boris Johnson hopes the economy will be reopen by June.

The Government – and the country at large – simply can’t afford to make any mistakes when the economy is not forecast to return to pre-Covid levels until the middle of next year and when borrowing levels this year, and next, will be at their highest since the war.

However, while many are reassured by Mr Sunak’s stewardship of the economy, eye-catching tax allowances for investors and willingness to set out now the need to raise corporation tax and freeze personal tax allowances in the future to begin to pay for Covid, others will view the Budget as a missed opportunity.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak on the steps of 11 Downing Street ahead of the Budget.

Mr Sunak will contend, with reason, that now is not the time to reform social care – when is? – but 30,000 Covid deaths in care homes, this week’s grim milestone, suggests otherwise.

The Chancellor will also say that departmental spending decisions need to wait until the autumn when the rate of recovery will be clear. That might be so, but education needs a 10-year plan now so future skills needs can be met.

And he will also argue that this is a Budget for the North with freeport status for the Humber and Teesside; the National Infrastructure Bank moving to Leeds and a Treasury North campus now due to be built in Darlington.

All significant announcements in their own right, they do not, however, constitute a definitive Northern Powerhouse strategy that brings together every aspect of regional policy and enables genuine accountability and transparency.

This was Rishi Sunak delivering his Budget to a socially distanced House of Commons.

This is not devolution – or “levelling up”, to use the London government’s in-vogue jargon. It is Whitehall retaining all the powers, pounds and pence on its terms rather than entrusting local leaders with the recovery.

As such, it is even more important that leaders here use these Budget announcements to make the political and persuasive case for a new deal for the North. For, the sooner this region is on the road to recovery, the greater the likelihood that the national economy will return to a fairer and healthier state after a year like no other.

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