Hammond’s first and last Autumn Statement

The most welcome announcement from Chancellor Philip Hammond during his first Autumn Statement was that it’ll also be his last. There will henceforth be one budget in autumn each year, followed up by a “Spring Statement”.

That sounds like a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, but Hammond insists the Spring Statement will purely be to address the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) latest economic forecasts, while having the annual budget in autumn will give businesses and individuals time to plan ahead for the new tax year. A respite from the hyperactive showmanship of the George Osborne and Gordon Brown eras would be very welcome – if he can make it stick.

Otherwise, it was – disappointingly – business as usual: talk of grand schemes, political point scoring, and the odd stealth tax slipped in. Hammond kicked off by outlining the post-Brexit hit to the public finances. Behind the usual ridiculously precise figures (borrowing will now be £17.2bn in 2021/2022, reckons the OBR), the message was clear – we won’t be balancing the books by the end of this parliament any more. The public finances will be £122bn worse off by 2021 than expected in March, the national debt will be nearly £2trn by the end of parliament, and our debt-to-GDP ratio will peak at 90% in 2017/2018.

Of course, there’s a high degree of uncertainty to those forecasts, and it would be a mistake to set too much store by them. But with those sorts of debt figures, Hammond had to give at least an impression of fiscal prudence. So rather than talk about spending, he talked about “investing” to improve Britain’s dire productivity by upgrading its infrastructure.

He earmarked a £23bn fund, which, over the coming five years, will be spent on – among other things – improving the roads, commercialising research and development, delivering a railway line between Oxford and Cambridge, and upgrading Britain’s telecoms infrastructure. A £2.3bn housing infrastructure fund is designed to help provide 100,000 houses in areas of “high demand”, while there’s £1.4bn for 40,000 extra affordable homes.

The ridiculous help-to-buy scheme (a taxpayer subsidy for housebuilders masquerading as a helping hand for first-time buyers) remains, but the good news for investors is that there were no major changes to the individual savings account (Isa) or pensions regime (though there was one sneaky change to pensions – see below).

Irritatingly, the Lifetime Allowance remains in place, but on the positive side, higher-rate tax relief also remained untouched. This, of course, cannot be guaranteed to remain in the future, so if you’re a higher-rate taxpayer, it’s worth taking advantage of your allowance while it lasts.

Companies: winners and losers

On individual investment sectors, Tom Stevenson of Fidelity International suggests that while housebuilders could benefit from plans to boost building, a better option might be “companies supporting and exploiting construction in various ways – tool makers, engineers, repair providers”. Those who can win work on favoured infrastructure projects – transport and digital networks – should be best positioned to take advantage.

As far as the losers go, insurers are unlikely to welcome the rise in the insurance premium tax, which will drive up prices for their customers – insurance market researcher Consumer Intelligence reckons the hike in insurance-premium tax (6% before November 2015, now rising to 12% from April 2017) will add around £15 a year to the average car insurance premium, and about £2.50 a year to home insurance. Meanwhile, a rise in the National Living Wage will increase staff costs in the service sector. 

However, the most obvious losers were the estate agents. The government is to ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants. Instead, landlords – much tougher negotiators – will have to cover any costs. As a result, the likes of Foxtons and Countrywide saw their share prices tumble. It’s also a clear message to any remaining would-be buy-to-let tycoons out there – if you didn’t already realise that the government has it in for you, you should do now.

What it means for your money

Pensions and savings: the government will not abolish the “triple-lock” (whereby the state pension rises by at least 2.5% a year, or by wage or price inflation – whichever is highest) during this parliament. However, it will be “reviewed” come 2020, for which any sensible voter will read “scrapped”. 

As for private pensions, a minor change was a cut in the money purchase annual allowance. Currently you can put £40,000 a year in a pension (as long as you earn at least that much), but once you start to draw down your pension fund, that allowance falls to £10,000 – and from April next year, it will be just £4,000. The move is likely to encourage people to think twice about starting to withdraw money in their 50s and early 60s.

As a sop to savers, the government will also launch a savings bond through National Savings & Investments, which will pay out 2.2% a year on up to £3,000 invested (though given that inflation looks set to rise above that level next year, that may soon not be as appealing as it looks today).

Salary sacrifice: the range of non-cash benefits eligible for “salary sacrifice” is being cut back, but the most significant ones – pension contributions and childcare arrangements – will still be included in the scheme.

Income tax: the income-tax-free threshold will rise from £11,000 to £11,500 in April 2017, while the minimum wage will rise from £7.20 to £7.50. Meanwhile, the 40% tax threshold will rise to £50,000 by 2020. The employer and employee national insurance thresholds will be equalised at £157 a week.