Ending the rural digital deserts

Samantha Niblett, Vice-Chair (Membership) of Erewash CLP and Founder of Labour Women in Tech

I don’t always agree with the Country Land and Business Association but it has a point when it says that rural areas are 19% less productive and could generate £43bn more for the UK’s economy if it was levelled up.

We have common ground with them when making the case for improved infrastructure, especially in services like transport, broadband and 5G mobile.

Working in the tech sector for a global company serving businesses whose teams are increasingly working remotely, every day I see the opportunity to boost the rural economy using digital tools – if only the infrastructure worked.

Hybrid and remote working accelerated during the Covid pandemic. Before it, the practice had certainly risen. Between January and December 2019, House of Commons research shows that 12% of Britain’s workers had worked from home for at least one day a week with 5% saying they worked mainly from home.

During the pandemic these numbers soared to 49% working from home at least once a week and 38% mainly from home. Since then, the numbers have come down again to 22% and 13% respectively as of last September.

The advantages to the rural economy are clear if workers can choose to work from wherever they want and not feel tied to an urban commuter belt. They will inevitably spend more in their local village or town and, without the daily travel grind, are more likely to have time to participate in community and civic life as well as gain more control of their working day when considering childcare.

PwC found that 83% of employers think remote working during Covid has been successful for their company with 55% of employees preferring to work from home for at least three days a week.

But the choice is only valid if there is the technology in place to facilitate it.

Last October Lucy Powell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport unveiled Labour’s policy on broadband. She said at the time that “Labour will ensure accessing and connecting to digital infrastructure powers growth across our economy to ensure people and places aren’t left behind.”

But so many rural areas are still digital deserts with no hope of fast fibre – so important to the high-growth industries – being available anytime soon.

In semi-rural South Derbyshire, close to my home, dozens of towns and villages cannot get the vital Gigabit capability that 68% of UK premises already enjoy. Even in key towns there like Melbourne, with a population of 5,000 people, Ofcom’s map shows only one of the four main providers offers just patchy 5G data coverage – limiting the scope for homeworking.

So I agree with Lucy and we have to get serious with the broadband and mobile providers to ensure places like Melbourne are not left behind.  We can then fully draw on the talents of people already living in rural areas as well as boost the local economy by encouraging people and businesses to locate there, confident in the knowledge that the tech infrastructure works.

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