This week was Budget Week. Stronger than expected economic forecasts from the independent Office of Budget Responsibility meant the Chancellor had a bit more financial headroom. And he decided to spend it.
Let’s be clear what “headroom” means though. The UK still isn’t living within its means. We haven’t done that since 2001, and we don’t expect to do so until 2025. But because the borrowing figure was lower than expected, he felt able to loosen the purse strings. For Cheltenham, the huge increase in the NHS budget was big news. This will now rise from about £115 billion this year to £148 billion in 2023 – more than £20 billion over and above inflation.
There was also an increase in the National Living Wage which will go up to £8.21. And the amount we get to keep before the taxman comes knocking is rising to £12,500 – saving a typical taxpayer £130 a year. Meanwhile, typical Cheltenham pubs and similar-sized shops will save more than £6,000 in business rates after a cut to boost the high street.
But I wanted to focus on something which not many pundits talked about but which could now transform housing opportunity for young people in Cheltenham: namely a scheme to boost the redevelopment of under-used retail and commercial space into homes, bringing life back to our town centre at the same. Although Cheltenham has stood up to the online retail hurricane better than most, our shopping areas are still ‘gap-toothed’ in places. I’ve argued in the Echo in the past that we can turn that problem into a great opportunity. The Chancellor agreed, and councils now have the tools to redevelop empty eyesores into housing – and without cutting down a single tree or blade of grass in the process.
I believe our town can and should take that opportunity. If we want to remain vibrant and diverse, we need more homes for our young people. This Budget gives us the tools to deliver them.