3 July 2020

It’s time to close the digital divide between rural and urban Britain

By

It is perhaps unsurprising that after months of isolation, and having discovered the feasibility of working from home, more and more city-dwellers are considering a move to the countryside. The countryside promises cleaner air, vast open expanses and an abundance of natural life. Some polls suggest that as much as 40% of all prospective house-buyers are looking to relocate to rural areas.

But many of these planned moves rest on the assumption that working from home will be as easy in the countryside as it is in the city. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, the rural economy has for years been denied the chance the reach its potential because of poor connectivity. If the Covid-19 crisis has made plain how much our economic life relies on technology and digital skills, it has also highlighted the yawning divide in connectivity between our urban and rural areas. I know people living in rural “not spots”, who have to find somewhere with 4G signal to take important calls or share large documents, be that at the end of the garden or driving to the top of a hill. This divide contributes to the lower productivity in rural areas, which sits at 16% below the national average.

It’s estimated that nearly half a million rural homes have poor or slow broadband. We welcome the agreement struck between the Government and mobile operators, which entails sharing the cost of phone masts as part of a £1 billion plan to end poor mobile coverage in the countryside, but what matters now is delivery. The operators have to meet their legal obligations within the agreement and ensure transparency and effective communication with rural businesses and communities. As it stands, 4G adds £75 billion to the UK economy every year and yet only 66% of rural areas have good coverage. Broadband connectivity is especially important to emerging businesses, and in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, we will need our entrepreneurs to be able to play a starring role in getting the economy back on its feet.

In order to really ensure that the UK has full connectivity by 2025, there needs to be a continual improvement and widening of mobile coverage. It is not enough to wait and then make dramatic change. Progress must be constant and incremental. Therefore, hard interim targets must be set within the Government’s and mobile operators’ Shared Rural Network agreement.

We want this private-public plan to work. Rural landowners are often more than willing to help, but the operators must play fair. If they do not, we won’t get anywhere, and the legal guarantees laid down by Ofcom will not be met.

As it is, poor broadband and mobile coverage is severely holding back the rural economy, and improving connectivity will unleash the economic potential of the countryside and allow its communities to be sustainable. It will mean jobs and wealth creation in areas blighted by years of neglect. It will eliminate the postcode lottery for digital services by ensuring that even those who live in the most remote areas can access their bank accounts, complete their online VAT return, access healthcare services, or shop online. Young families in need of homes will be able to build lives for themselves in rural communities.

The UK countryside has been left behind, time and time again. This has to end now.

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Mark Bridgeman is president of the Country Land and Business Association.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.