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Wiltshire brewers prepare for another Budget headache

Dave Harvey | 13:26 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Pint of Bitter

Here's a prediction for the Budget.

Beer will go up.

So, being a simple soul, I'm heading to a brewery. Wadworth & Co of Devizes, have been brewing since 1875 and they still work in the same Victorian building with its special tower.

As a rule, brewers don't like Budgets. Wadworth's Chairman Charles Bartholomew wrote to The Times this week, with 39 other brewers, urging restraint.

Wadworth's Brewery in Devizes "Since March 2008 beer tax has increased by 20%," their letter explained. "Oxford Economics forecasts these tax increases will cost £9bn in lost economic activity and 59,000 job losses by 2012-13."

What they particularly dislike is the "escalator" Gordon Brown introduced, which increases duty by 2% above inflation each year. Add VAT on top, and the price just keeps going up, even as punters cut their spending in the recession.

But can Mr Darling afford to cut this now?

The big numbers have been crunched admirably by Stephanie Flanders here, but there's one clear conclusion. The national debt dwarfs everything else. Will it be £178bn, as the chancellor said in November? Or as "low" as £166bn, as some forecasters now predict? Either way, it's clear there are no "giveaways" on the horizon.

I shall be buying some drinks as the chancellor speaks, though probably orange juice!

HAM truck in actionOne of my guests does the books for a haulage firm in Devizes, Hams Transport, so she'll be on the soft stuff. Hams work in construction, lifting pretty much everything, as this picture shows! Finance Director Rachael Pickard says the last year has been tough for everyone, though builders can now see the economic sun breaking through the clouds.

"We are out of the worst of it," she tells me, "but confidence is still really thin. People are wary of taking on big contracts, because so many big firms have gone under."

Interestingly, there's not much Rachael and her colleagues are hoping for from Mr Darling. Their biggest problem? Still our old friend bank lending. It's barely a story these days, yet the difficulty of raising a loan, and the high rates the banks charge, is still the top worry for Wiltshire firms.

Repeatedly, people here tell me they see politics - both the Budget and the Election - as a distracting delay. They need confidence back, spending back, bank lending back. But they realise that nothing much is going to change this side of the Election. "They just want it over with," Michael Williams, from the Wessex Chamber of Commerce, tells me.

On Budget Day, they'll be brewing a special "St George's Day" pint at Wadworth. Mr Bartholomew and his colleagues love pointing out that 90% of beer drunk in British pubs is made in Britain, and drunk sociably. But can Mr Darling afford to buy the nation a round, and cut the duty?

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