BEFORE the new chancellor took to the stand for the first time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared ‘there is about to be an infrastructure revolution in this country’.

First addressing the UK’s coronavirus response, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak promised the NHS “whatever it needs” in terms of funding to tackle the spread of Covid-19.

He said: “Whether it’s millions of pounds or billions of pounds, whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS.”

Mr Sunak offered support to any workers who become too ill to work, with new measures including obtaining sick notes through 111 rather than having to visit a GP.

The government will cover Statutory Sick Pay cost for 14 days for businesses with fewer than 250 employees. Mr Sunak also revealed a £5billion emergency response fund to support NHS and other public services.

His biggest announcement for the High Street was the “exceptional step” of abolishing business rates for companies with a rateable value below £51,000.

Tracey Watts, tax partner at Taunton-based Albert Goodman, said:

"Today the chancellor Rishi Sunak said “we’re getting it done”. We may well be getting it done but it’s not all clear who is paying for it.

"The Government has taken some positive steps to support small businesses that will be impacted by the coronavirus, such as support with statutory sick pay, the temporary abolition of business rates for businesses in the hospitality and leisure sector, and government backed loans for business with cash flow issues, but it would have been good to see this support extended to business above the 250 employee threshold.

"With a large number of hotels, retail parks, leisure parks and an array of pubs operating in Taunton and the surrounding area, this will be welcomed news, I’m sure.

"Pubs for example, will qualify for a business rate discount that has risen from a £1,000 saving to £5,000.

"Some positive news for the Somerset farming community will be that the abolition of relief of red diesel will not be extended to the agricultural sector.

"There was no temporary reduction in VAT as had been mooted, and cooperation tax will remain at 19% as expected."

Mr Sunak said the planned increase in spirits duty will be cancelled and that duties for cider and wine drinkers will be frozen as well.

Beer duty will also be frozen, the Chancellor said, and he confirmed that the tampon tax would be abolished.

Fuel duty has been frozen since March 2011, with Rishi Sunak revealing this would be the case once again.

Stephen Henagulph, chief executive of Somerset Chamber of Commerce, said:

“While as always, the devil will be in the detail, at first glance this appears to be a strong Budget for business – business rates will be temporarily axed for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with a rateable value of under £51,000 and the scheme extended to coverall those in the hospitality industry below the £51,000 threshold, including museums, small hotels, theatres and guest houses.

"That is a huge boost to businesses which have already been struggling with the uncertainty created by Brexit and the wider slowdown of the world economy.

"The Chancellor’s announcement that small and medium sized businesses will be able to claim back the cost of Statutory Sick Pay as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak is also to be welcomed, as is the move to make it available to those who are self-employed.

"The freeze on alcohol duty will be good news for our regional producers and the increased investment in ‘clean growth’ technology, including research and development and nuclear fusion, is vital to ensure we meet our climate change targets while supporting businesses and helping to grow the economy – as demonstrated by the This is Gravity development near Bridgwater.

"It was particularly pleasing to hear the Chancellor specifically mention the development of growth hubs in the West of England.

“Earlier this week the Government announced plans to invest £1 billion to bring 4G mobile phone coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025 – the Budget has further supported this with £5 billion to bring gigabit broadband to rural areas.

"Good connectivity is key to giving Somerset’s businesses a level playing field, enabling them to work remotely and compete with their big city-based competitors.

“The Chamber has long supported the call to dual the entire A303 and A358 from Stonehenge to Taunton and we welcome the Chancellor’s pledge to get the A303 at Stonehenge done – even if he did refer to the A417 north of Swindon as being in the South West.

“Business needs good infrastructure – both physical and digital – and the £27 billion investment in roads, coupled with rail improvements and the new pothole fund, is a huge step in the right direction.

"Business and the Chamber will now be watching for the detail in the hope the pledges do not get lost in red tape, while also ensuring the additional investment is not swallowed up by the North and South East.”

For SMEs who qualify for small business rate relief, there was also a £3,000 cash handout announced.

Andy Sharman, leader of the South West Business Crime Centre, said:

"I think, given the current circumstances, this was exactly the budget that was needed. Given all the uncertainty with CoVid19, measures to ensure it doesn’t decimate businesses were important.

"The business rate relief and government loan to assist small businesses will certainly help to alleviate worries should the worst happen.

"Also pleased to see that some support for low paid workers has been considered as long as there’s a prompt turnaround to avoid them entering a financial crisis.

"This is obviously not the budget the Chancellor would have otherwise set out but there’s little else within it that could excite.

"Depending on how this virus situation plays out, come the next one in the Autumn, I would like to see something significant done about business rates and some levelling up work for the South West region as we appear to have missed out this time round."

Gideon Amos, Liberal Democrat who stood in the last two Parliamentary elections in Taunton Deane, said:

“The two groups losing out big time from this budget are people concerned about the climate, and freelancers who will be hit with big tax hikes even where they’ve been playing by all the rules.

“The decision of the courts to uphold the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and overturn the Government's Heathrow policy makes it very unlikely that the projected £27 billion for new roads will ever happen.

"The budget is re-announcing it as if proceeding anyway is jot a problem. It’s time the Conservatives caught up with the need for more public transport, which is cleaner and more environmentally friendly.

“Projects like improved rail links for Taunton and Wellington don’t get a mention - hardly surprising when the budget allocates £27Bn for roads but only £1Bn for public transport! No wonder our villages on the roads to Chard and Wells are set to lose their bus services”.

“The other big losers are small contractors, espesially in the construction industry. Without the change of heart thousands were hoping for today, the new IR35 rules will hit with a vengeance as the biggest hirers are being spooked into getting rid of all their current contracts. Where new ones are issued they involve workers often losing 20% to 30% of their income every year, even when they have been paying their taxes diligently for decades.

“For everyone else the Coronavirus crisis exposes both the drastic cuts made in the NHS by the Conservatives and the failure to address the growing crisis in personal care for older people, who are most vulnerable to the virus. Epidemics come and go and huge investment is needed so that public services are ever ready.

“LibDems want a budget that puts mental health and wellbeing at its centre, which is why we have demanded 1p on the rate of tax to give the NHS the extra £6Bn per year it needs. In this way our budget would put resources into alleviating the stress and anxiety of many, as well as tackle the climate threat, we would call that a ‘wellbeing budget‘, an approach being piloted in New Zealand. We need a liberal budget that puts care, fairness and the planet first. 

“Unfortunately this budget is a case of action on the climate getting canned again."