NORTH-EAST business leaders have warned Philip Hammond to deliver on his promise to make Britain “a force for good in the world” after giving his Spring Statement a lukewarm reception.

The Chancellor set out his growth blueprint on Tuesday, March 13, revealing a £550m cash pot to boost skills and £80m support to help smaller firms recruit apprentices.

Mr Hammond also pledged a review aimed at eliminating smaller operators’ late payment travails and galvanising poorly-performing businesses to match their peers.

However, business figures from across the region were somewhat restrained in their assessment, citing a lack of detail on Brexit, efforts to narrow the North/South divide and a shortage of cash to bolster the UK’s digital sector.

Revealing the Office for Budget Responsibility now expects state borrowing to be £45.2bn this year - some £4.7bn lower than predicted in November and £108bn lower than in 2010 - Mr Hammond told the Commons that the Government was “seizing the opportunities ahead as we build our vision of a country that works for everyone.”

The Chancellor also revealed Downing Street is expected to run a “small” surplus on day-to-day spending in 2018/2019, borrowing only for capital investment following forecasts for higher gross domestic product growth and lower inflation.

Citing a £500m commitment to T-Levels, the Government’s new alternative technical qualification, Mr Hammond promised a further £50m to help employers roll out placements for the programme.

He also pledged £80m to support smaller businesses’ engagement with apprentices to help companies and training providers get to grips with the Apprenticeship Levy.

Launched last year, the levy is applicable to businesses with an annual wage bill of more than £3m, which can then draw on the fund to finance training.

But the scheme has faced criticism, with many firms and skills organisations saying implementation of the plan remains confusing.

Brenda McLeish, chief executive at training provider Learning Curve Group, which is moving into new 16,000sq ft headquarters on DurhamGate, near Spennymoor, County Durham, said the £80m commitment must be the start of more concerted action.

She said: “While the Government understands the value apprenticeships bring to the economy and creation of a sustainable and skilled future workforce, the levy project has failed to deliver so far.

“The £80m has the potential to reverse the decline in new apprentice starts in some way, but more needs to be done to transform the levy into a workable solution.”

Elsewhere, Mike Odysseas, managing director at telecoms firm Odyssey Systems, based on the outskirts of Stockton, denounced Mr Hammond’s commitment of £25m for 5G testbeds, aimed at speeding up mobile data connections, saying the cash figure falls well short of what is required.

He said: “The £25m to support 5G phone networks hardly came as a surprise and, quite frankly, isn’t nearly enough the kind of investment required.

“That level of investment wouldn’t give you a continuous call between two or three UK train stations.”

Sandra Thompson, managing partner at Newcastle-based accountancy company EY, added: “Investing more in digital initiatives, such as 5G test beds, is welcome but yet more is needed if this region and the country’s productivity growth is to be improved.”

Meanwhile, Gillian Marshall, chief executive at the Gateshead-based Entrepreneurs’ Forum, said while Mr Hammond had given industrialists “small nuggets” to deliberate, he must use his Spring Statement as a springboard to deliver a strong Autumn Budget later in the year.

She added: “The Spring Statement was light on detail but rich in intention, highlighting the importance of entrepreneurial businesses to the future prosperity of the economy.

“I hope the Chancellor continues this in his Budget and spends some of the next few months enhancing measures such as Entrepreneurs’ Relief and research and development tax credits.”

Mr Hammond told the Commons that the Government was “building a country we can all be proud to pass on to our children, a beacon of enterprise and innovation and an outward looking free trade nation.”

However, his 3,000-word speech referred to Brexit on just two occasions, and Ross Smith, director of policy at the North-East England Chamber of Commerce, said its relative omission was somewhat glaring.

He said: “While the Spring Statement forecast continuing economic growth, this can be described as steady at best, so there is much still to tackle to create conditions in which our businesses can generate the jobs, investment and wealth we need.

“But two big issues loomed large and were barely mentioned.

“The success or otherwise of negotiations and planning for Brexit could yet render these forecasts largely irrelevant and businesses still have little detail to base their planning on.

“The Chancellor also failed to give any meaningful update on whether the gap between London and other regions is being closed.”

But Mike Cherry, Federation of Small Businesses’ national chairman, said he was delighted to see Mr Hammond taking on board long-held calls to address the issue of late payments, saying his commitment to remove the “scourge” was most welcome.

He added: “The late payment crisis destroys 50,000 businesses a year and ending it could add £2.5bn to our economy annually and help close the productivity gap.

“The collapse of Carillion highlighted the dangers of the UK’s pernicious poor payment culture.

“We need to create an environment where another Carillion can’t happen.”