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Has Philip Hammond saved the high street? No – but every little helps

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

How much did Philip Hammond’s giveaway Budget help dying town centres? Not enough, say campaigners, but let’s give the Chancellor some credit. A one-third relief in business rates for retail properties with a rateable value of less than £51,000 means an annual saving of up to £8,000 for a huge number of small businesses; pubs where people still drink beer and spirits in old-fashioned style benefit from a duty freeze that one industry body says will ‘secure upwards of 3,000 jobs’; and there’s money to help convert disused premises into homes.

On the other hand, there was a £3 billion sting for the growing army of freelance ‘consultants’ and techies who contribute so much to the new urban economy but whom the Treasury suspects of helping companies that hire them to avoid payroll taxes. IPSE, a lobby group for the self-employed, called it ‘a short-term tax grab that will do lasting damage… by taxing out of existence the smallest and most agile businesses’. I suspect that’s right: abuse may be curtailed, but with too much collateral damage to those genuinely trying to go it alone.

Then there’s the ‘digital services tax’, aimed at the online advertising revenues of the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, but not at direct sales by Amazon et al. Even the Chancellor’s own figures say this will raise only £400 million a year: a Labour MP called it ‘pathetically tokenistic’. At best it’s a stumbling step in a direction other governments will follow, but I doubt it will make a jot of difference to the ragtag rearguard of bricks-and-mortar shopkeepers.

Temple of delusion

Our Who’s Afraid of Bitcoin? event produced a rollicking debate, though I can’t claim the house was evenly divided: mine was the only sceptical voice among a congregation eager to receive the gospel according to Saifedean Ammous, author of The Bitcoin Standard: the Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. He argued that bitcoin’s finite supply — enshrined in its supposedly unhackable software protocol — will eventually create an immutable store of value at least as good as gold, and an alternative reserve currency that will supplant the US dollar and other debased ‘fiat’ money.


I argued in response that bitcoin is just another online gambling chip, but one that happens to come wrapped in cultish ideology. If its performance becomes less volatile than it has been over the past two years, punters will drift elsewhere in search of excitement. Arthur Hayes, chief executive of the BitMEX trading platform which sponsored the conference, made my point for me when he said his customers like bitcoin ‘because the price moves a lot’. Asked whether he’s a bitcoin investor himself, he replied: ‘Why bet on the horses when you own the racetrack?’

Ammous’s presentation ended bizarrely with a slide comparing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to a modern abstract artwork, his thesis being that bitcoin will be recognised as a timeless masterpiece long after other currencies, fiat or crypto, have been exposed as ephemeral dross. That triggered a memory which I struggled to crystallise until later: it was of visiting the Venetian casino resort complex in Las Vegas, with its Rialto Bridge and its fake Tiepolo ceilings: a temple of faux-grandeur and delusion in which the odds will always favour the house. That, to me, is what bitcoin is all about.

Electric pitstops

It’s tempting to take another pop at the Brexit-supporting inventor-industrialist Sir James Dyson for announcing that his £2 billion electric car factory will be sited in Singapore, rather than adjacent to his Wiltshire research centre. But the truth is that most of the electric-car action, both in early adoption by motorists and in development of next-generation battery power, is in Asia, with China well in the lead. Yet another travail of the UK auto industry is its relative unreadiness to meet what’s likely to be mass-market demand for electric vehicles in a decade’s time or less.

One obstacle, here and on the continent, is the failure of governments to accelerate the creation of networks of fast–charging stations, as opposed to low-powered sockets that require a 45-minute pitstop; Hammond’s Budget barely nodded in that direction, with an extension of an existing tax relief. BMW, Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen have joined forces to solve the problem for themselves with a 400-station super-fast charging network called Ionity — but only 45 of its stations will be in the UK. If you happen to have ordered a state-of-the-art Jaguar I-Pace, with a claimed but reportedly variable range of up to 292 miles, be prepared for old-fashioned motoring adventure as you watch the power gauge drop and scan the map for the next available charging point.

‘Thinkin’ of buyin’ an electric car,’ said a chap in the club recently, suggesting not-so-early adopters are starting to see the future. ‘Some of them can even reach Dorset, you know.’ I hope he’s right.

Highway robbery

While I’m in Mr Toad mode, as it were, let me salute the FairFuelUK campaign for its feisty post-Budget press release. Far from content with Hammond’s ninth-year-in-a-row fuel-duty freeze, it listed a stack of other grievances, including ‘Still no independent pump price monitoring body to check opportunistic profiteering in the fuel supply chain’ — and I’m in sympathy. One day in September I filled up at Tesco at 126.9p per litre; three days later at Moto’s Trowell services on the M1, I paid 153.9p, breaking the £100-tank barrier for the first time. There was no sudden global oil crisis, but it was Sunday morning and an algorithm somewhere must have jacked up the price to exploit the fact that few other stations were open in the vicinity: pure ‘opportunistic profiteering’. If you see similar examples, do email me: martin@spectator.co.uk.

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