West Midlands business leaders last night slammed Alistair Darling's first Budget as an unimaginative "blink and you missed it" exercise. They fear it will do little to help companies become more competitive in cut-throat international markets.
And they also expressed alarm after the Chancellor signalled his intention to put road pricing back on the agenda – just a week after leaders of all the West Midlands boroughs confirmed they would be looking for alternative solutions to congestion.
In Birmingham the Budget was described as a "sober exercise which contained few surprises".
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry said Mr Darling still has a lot to do to prove he is a "Chancellor for business".
BCI head of policy, Charlotte Ritchie, said: "While, in some respects, the Chancellor was making the right noises about business, it might not make all that much difference in the long term.
"There was not a lot of substance to the rhetoric, and much of it was already announced in the pre-Budget report last year.
"The postponement of the fuel duty increase, if it was done as a response to the current economic climate, should be welcomed – but it was only a six-month postponement, with a further half-pence increase to be expected in 2010.
"We would rather he had scrapped it altogether, as rising fuel costs is one of the main burdens on business today."
She added: "The fact that road pricing is also back on the agenda, just a week after it looked as if it had been shelved, is also confusing and seems like a contradiction.
"One of the reasons why the West Midlands decided not to back road pricing is because the technology is not in place. This latest initiative will also fail unless the investment is made first in how it will work."
Louise Bennett, chief executive of the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "Anyone could have easily missed the mention of business in this Budget and where our wealth creators were mentioned, it was not generally good news.
"The postponement on the increase to fuel duty was like throwing breadcrumbs to the millions of businesses who will be impacted by the eventual 2p increase in fuel duty and the further increase in 2010.
"Transporting goods and services to market is a high cost to every business and increases in such costs are not to be welcomed.
"Businesses should note that the Chancellor made it clear he intends to keep the issue of road pricing on the agenda, which would also be a further cost to business if it does not go hand-in-hand with much greater investment in our public transport infrastructure."
She continued: "Where minor positive announcements were made in respect of business, I suspect the devil is in the detail, not least the details of the new tax relief for investment in small businesses and how this Government is going to better the opportunity for small businesses to compete and win public sector contracts.
"A big omission from this Chancellor’s first Budget was the real and genuine mention of skills and the recognition that upskilling our workforce goes hand-in-hand with stronger productivity and performance of our business base.
"One could suggest this was a pre pre-electioneering Budget in so much as that they give the bad news stories now, so that they do not have to be repeated just before a future election.
"Overall, this was a Budget that missed the opportunity to really help our small and medium sized enterprises – the lifeblood of our economy."
Peter Matthews, president of the Black Country Chamber, said more support for international trade would have been welcome.
"The chamber has been working to ensure more local small and medium firms win more business from the public sector. So we welcome the goal for small and medium enterprises to win 30 per cent of all public sector business in the next five years," he added.
Andrew Dale, tax partner at accountants Ernst & Young, also welcomed the Chancellor's announcement of a £60 million increase in small firms loans guarantee.
"But that figure is a drop in the ocean compared to what is really needed," he added. "In general, I don’t believe this Budget will fundamentally change the competitiveness of the UK plc."
Ian Smith, chief executive of EEF West Midlands, was equally dismissive.
"If it wasn’t for the change in Chancellor I would have been sure they were just showing a repeat of last year’s Budget," he said "All the announcements for business have been announced several times before and most were not welcome the first time."