The digital economy looks to be one of the big winners of Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget, with the Chancellor committing £500m across areas including Artificial Intelligence, low-carbon and autonomous vehicles, geospatial data and the rollout of fibre and 5G connectivity.
Hammond declared: “A new tech business is funded every hour, and I want that to be every half hour,” as he announced a series of funding pots for a sector that is growing faster than the UK economy on average, but it seen as being one that could be threatened by Brexit should international capital become wary of changing regulation and further currency fluctuations.
Several of Hammond’s tech commitments had been heavily trailed, such as the £21m four-year roll-out of Tech Nation, so that what was TechCity in East London and its Manchester-based offshoot Tech North becomes a network of 12 national centres of excellence.
In geospatial data, the government looks to capitalise on the inherent power of data held by public bodies. This has historically been a genuine area of strength in the UK, but with mapping being such a key ingredient of mobile apps and other mapping services, constant upgrading is required. In each of the next two years, £40m a year will be provided to support this work.
The government said: “The UK has some of the best geospatial data in the world, and much of it is held by public bodies. The potential economic value of this data is huge. To maximise the growth of the digital economy and consolidate the UK’s position as the best place to start and grow a digital business, the government will establish a new Geospatial Commission to provide strategic oversight to the various public bodies who hold this data.”
The government and its commission are to work with the Ordnance Survey on how best to open up freely the OS’s “MasterMap” data to businesses, setting a target date of May 2018. This could be done under an open government licence or through an alternative mechanism, while maintaining the OS’s strategic strengths.
Artificial Intelligence also received a boost, with £75m committed, including a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation which it said would be the first national advisory body for AI. One of the areas this ties into is driverless cars – just one area that will benefit from superior geospatial information – and the Budget included a commitment to regulatory changes on testing.
In terms of low-emission vehicles, £200m is being committed to improving power-charging infrastructure, to be matched by private investment.
Life sciences, a key sector for various parts of the region, including Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter, Cheshire’s Science Corridor and Manchester’s Corridor cluster, was given a boost, with the 2016 Budget commitment to R&D support extended, taking total direct R&D spending to £12,bn a year by 2021-22.
James Selka, chief executive of the Manufacturing Technologies Association, said: EO of the Manufacturing Technologies Association said:
“We welcome the funding that is being made available for R&D in connection with the Industrial Strategy and look forward to the imminent White Paper. The current pace of technological change means that we have a once in a generation opportunity to re-industrialise the UK’s economy.”
However, Selka added: “The Government has missed an opportunity to reform the way that the tax system treats capital investment. Our capital allowances regime is uncompetitive in relation to other countries’ systems and is putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to global investment decisions.”