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Budget seeks to put UK at the heart of the digital revolution

A new Transforming Cities Fund is also designed to give areas the “firepower” to deliver on local transport priorities

The Chancellor showed further support for driverless cars and an electric future
The Chancellor showed further support for driverless cars and an electric future

“A new tech business is founded in Britain every hour,” said UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond in yesterday’s Autumn Budget statement. “And I want that to be every half hour.”


It set the tone for Hammond to go on to make a raft of announcements designed to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the digital revolution with the news of more than £500m in a range of initiatives from artificial intelligence (AI), to 5G and full fibre broadband.


These include setting up the world’s first national advisory body for artificial intelligence. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will set standards for the use and ethics of AI and data, designed to allow the UK to lead the world in developing practical uses for the technology.


In another announcement, the Chancellor pledged £30 million to go towards digital courses using AI. Meanwhile, a new Geospatial Data Commission will develop a strategy for using the government’s location data to support economic growth.


Driverless and electric vehicles

Prior to the Autumn Statement, Chancellor Hammond made a claim that driverless cars will be on the UK roads by 2021 and the Government stepped up its support to make this a reality. “There is perhaps no technology as symbolic of the revolution gathering pace around us as driverless vehicles,” he said explaining that the UK will set out rules so that self-driving cars can be tested without a safety operator.


And he added that while the country’s future vehicles will be driverless, “they’ll be electric first”. “And that’s a change that needs to come as soon as possible,” he said.


With this in mind, a new £400m charging infrastructure fund will be established and an extra £100 million invested in a Plug-In-Car Grant, and £40 million in charging R&D. The government will also make sure all new homes are built with the right cables for electric car charge points and the Chancellor confirmed that the law will be clarified so that people who charge their electric vehicles at work will not face a benefit-in-kind charge from next year.


There was also support for local transport initiatives with the announcement of a new £1.7 billion Transforming Cities Fund, half of which is to be shared by the six areas with elected metro mayors to give them “the firepower” to deliver on local transport priorities. The remainder will be open to competition by other cities in England.


Other commitments to transport included:

an extra £337 million to go towards a fleet of new trains on the Tyne & Wear Metro;

an extra £6 million will go towards the Midlands Connect motorway and rail projects;

and transport links along the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor will be improved by:

  • completing the rail link between Oxford and Bedford, and Aylesbury and Milton Keynes
  • setting up a new East West Rail Company to speed up work on the rail link between Bedford and Cambridge
  • £5 million to help develop plans for Cambridge South Station
  • building the Expressway road between Oxford and Cambridge.

Infrastructure and local empowerment

The Chancellor used his speech to remind the country of the ongoing commitment to building a modern infrastructure, with the proud boasts that the UK has the biggest rail programme since Victorian times, the largest road building programme since the ’70s and the two largest infrastructure projects in Europe: Crossrail and HS2.


There was an admission that too much of the UK’s economic strength is concentrated in the capital city and to truly to build an economy that is fit for the future, “we have to get all parts of the UK firing on all cylinders”.


He added: “We’re investing £300 million to ensure HS2 infrastructure can accommodate future Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine rail improvements. I am also providing £30 million to trial new solutions to improve mobile and digital connectivity on trains, on the TransPennine route.”


The Chancellor also reported on the progress of empowering the regions to take more control of their futures. A local industrial strategy is being developed with Manchester, a second devolution deal was announced with Mayor Andy Street in the West Midlands and a new devolution deal agreed with North of the Tyne. He also confirmed that progress is being made on city deals for Tay Cities and Stirling, and on a growth deal for the Borderlands while negotiations will be opened for a Belfast City Deal.


More than £1 billion of discounted lending will also be available to local authorities across the country to support high-value infrastructure projects.


Environmental concerns

There was also good news for local authorities for whom pollution is high on the agenda with the establishment of a £220 million Clean Air Fund for local areas with the highest air pollution.


Local authorities will be able to use this money to help people adapt as steps are taken to reduce air pollution. Ways in which the money could be spent include reducing the cost of public transport for those on low incomes or modernising buses with more energy-efficient technology. The money will come from a temporary rise in Company Car Tax and Vehicle Excise Duty on new diesel cars.


The Chancellor pointed out though that air quality is not “our only environmental challenge”. He said: “Audiences across the country, glued to Blue Planet II, have been starkly reminded of the problems of plastics pollution. The UK led the world on climate change agreements. And is a pioneer in protecting marine environments. Now I want us to become a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic, littering our planet and our oceans."


He pledged to investigate how the tax system and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste. This follows the success of the 5p carrier bag charge, which has reduced the use of plastic bags by 80 per cent in the last two years. “Because we can’t keep our promise to the next generation to build an economy fit for the future, unless we ensure our planet has a future,” he said.


Responding to the UK Government’s Budget, Nick Roberts, Atkins’ chief Executive Officer for UK & Europe, said that the Chancellor has put digital and technology “at the heart of the British economy”. The Government is driving the infrastructure that secures our digitally-enabled future,” he said.


He added: “In addition to digital revolution, the Chancellor also recognised the value of traditional infrastructure. The commitments around building more housing, freeing up much-needed land and reforming planning regulations are positive developments, as are ongoing commitments to the big transport projects that connect our great towns, cities, communities and businesses. Underpinning these are further steps towards meaningful devolution which allow local authorities to deliver the local infrastructure projects to meet local needs.”


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