Every year we assess what the Budget means for the UK IT community. Most years we conclude: Nothing much. This year, we’d have to acknowledge progress, by concluding: Well, a bit, probably.
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The headline statement was George Osborne’s promise to make Britain “the technology hub of Europe”. Sadly there seemed little concrete policy or action to reveal how he intends to make that happen. If you use the broadest possible definition of “technology”, which the chancellor seems to have done, and include creative industries such as film and TV, plus scientific research such as pharmaceuticals, then you can start to build a case.
But for what we know as technology – information technology and communications – not so much.
There are some positive moves to improve tax breaks on research and development and for start-ups. There was the re-announcement of £100m promised in last year’s Autumn statement to fund 10 “super-connected” cities, plus £50m extra for 10 smaller cities. And there were some minor promises to improve rural mobile coverage and to boost signals around key roads and on the railways.
But there was nothing that you could hold up and show as proof of a clear action plan and commitment to that ambitious “technology hub” objective.
If anything, the Budget just goes to prove business secretary Vince Cable’s leaked comments to David Cameron, that the strategy is “piecemeal”, and there is an urgent need for “more leadership in identifying and supporting key technologies”.
Clearly it is better that Osborne said what he said than if he had said nothing, but we need more visible action and a more co-ordinated plan. Research last week from Boston Consulting Group showed that the internet plays a bigger role in the UK economy than in any G20 country – worth 8.3% of GDP – so we urgently need a vision and policies that build on that lead and use technology to pull us out of the downturn.
If ministers need educating about the role that technology can play, then at least they can expect some IT training – the most entertaining announcement in the Budget being that, “From 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully.”
So there is hope. By 2014, every minister will at least have to know how to use the web.