Budget speech: South East 'conspicuous by absence'

George Osborne with the 2015 Budget Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Chancellor George Osborne's 2015 was 'peppered' with place names

Chancellor George Osborne has delivered his final Budget before the general election - his message was that Britain is growing again - in fact faster than any other major advanced economy in the world.

But if you thought that meant he was about to announce some pre-election giveaways in order to woo undecided voters you're likely to be disappointed.

Some areas did see announcements that are aimed at stimulating growth - the chancellor announced provisional agreement had been struck to allow Greater Manchester to keep 100% of the additional growth in local business as part of the government's drive to build a "northern powerhouse".

In fact his speech was peppered with place names - from funding to help boost the oil industry in Aberdeen to a £1 billion world-first scheme to provide green energy from the tides of the Severn estuary and £60 million of funding for energy research in the Midlands.

But, despite the fact he was on his feet for over an hour, the South East region was conspicuous by its absence in his Budget speech.

North/south divide

Measures that had been trailed, such as increasing inheritance tax, which would have helped those with properties in the South East which have increased in value, are now going to be reviewed before any changes are implemented.

There are measures which will be welcomed. The Budget book recognised that housing remains a significant challenge across the South East.

The government created an Urban Development Corporation to drive forward development of a new garden city in Ebbsfleet. Board members are due to be announced and it's due to be up and running by next month.

For individuals, he announced a new ISA to help first time buyers - those who save £12,000 will see their savings increased by £3,000 in order to help them onto the housing ladder.

But, other than that, there was very little to bring cheer. It's always said George Osborne delivers very political Budgets and this one was no different.

I think he's taken the calculated risk that levels of income in the South East remain a lot higher than in other parts of the country so therefore it will be of greater benefit to help boost the economy in places like the North West and Yorkshire, rather than Kent or Sussex.

'New-found affection'

Also, when you look at the raw politics of this region's 29 MPs, 25 of them are Conservatives. Labour has so far failed to make the resurgence in the South East they would have liked ahead of this election.

Of course there are marginal seats - Hastings and Rye, Brighton Kemptown, and Hove and Portslade are all held with majorities of less than 2,000.

But the Conservatives are far more confident of holding on in these seats than in other parts of the country - in fact there were nine mentions of Birmingham in his speech. Warwickshire North, held by the Tories with a majority of just 54 votes, will benefit from the funding for energy research at the universities.

Of course political opponents have seized on the chancellor's new-found affection for the north of England.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The Green Party has accused the chancellor of an 'electioneering budget' which 'puts politics above people'

There is a mention in the budget red book about the government providing £100,000 for a further study into reopening the Lewes-Uckfield railway line.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, welcomed the announcement, saying: "It has become clearer than ever in recent weeks that there is a need for an alternative line from the Sussex Coast to London.

"A reopened Lewes-Uckfield line would provide exactly that, enabling through trains to run from Seaford and Newhaven via Uckfield, and also freeing up space on the Brighton main line for more Brighton trains."

Welcome news for Lewes, but in the scheme of the whole Budget £100,000 is a drop in the ocean.

Enough to win votes?

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the the chancellor was in danger of increasing the north/south divide. He said: "Marginal constituencies all over the country were mentioned but nothing in the South East got a mention at all."

He said he could only conclude that the chancellor and prime minister "think the South East is sewn up".

"Labour aren't doing well and therefore there is no need to even mention it," Mr Farage said.

The Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie also accused the chancellor of being complacent about voters in the South East.

The Green's Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas described it as "an electioneering budget from a chancellor who puts politics above people".

With just 50 days until the election, Mr Osborne has to hope he's done enough with this budget to woo voters in marginal seats while not alienating traditional Tory voters in the South East.

Image copyright PA

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