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Budget can cement recovering Scottish economy

Scotland's economic recovery is gaining momentum, with recent data confirming that growth in output, confidence and the labour market have picked up.

The Scottish Retail Consortium's (SRC) latest figures show retail sales recovered some of their sparkle last month, up 4% compared to a year earlier.

However, a sustained upturn is not yet assured. Growth remains uneven and its speed, strength and longevity are tentative.

So, what can be done to ensure meaningful and lasting economic growth takes hold?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget on 19 March provides a great opportunity to assist.

The UK Government is right to continue the path towards eliminating the deficit in the public finances and then beginning to pay down the ballooning national debt, which is set to swell by a further £226 billion over the next three years.

This will mitigate against the need for future tax rises on individuals or firms, which could hold back the economy.

At the heart of the Chancellor's plans should be measures that encourage retailers and other businesses to invest and hire and that put money in people's pockets.

The retail industry is the country's largest private sector employer, providing 230,000 jobs in Scotland - 8.5% of the workforce.

It is increasingly understood that retail can contribute more to the economy if the tax system is competitive.

If the Chancellor were to overhaul the business rates system it could increase retailers' confidence about investing in property, create more jobs and help revive high streets.

In addition to action on business rates, the Budget should ensure that the cost of employing people remains reasonable.

Despite the uptick in the economy, 195,000 Scots are still out of work.

The SRC's labour surveys show that the vast majority of adult hourly-paid employees in the retail industry earn above the minimum wage.

Many retailers also provide their staff with a total package that contains a whole range of standard benefits, which are greatly valued.

That said, retail is an industry that is sensitive to movements in the national minimum wage (NMW). The SRC supports the NMW, and decisions on future levels must take account of economic conditions and be underpinned by the principles of affordability, visibility and certainty.

If the Chancellor's Budget generates any windfall 'consequentials' for the devolved Scottish Government, then this must be directed towards GDP-enhancing investments and to keeping down taxes and charges affecting business.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium

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Finance

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