Peter Aldous writes for PoliticsHome.
When thinking of life’s necessities – food, water, heating – having a fast and reliable internet connection does not always spring to mind, but it should be added to this list.
Over the last two decades the internet has, for most, gone from a leisure activity to an integral part of our lives. Many public services have gone “digital first”, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic. For many, the only way they could access local services or do things previously taken for granted, such as keeping in contact with loved ones, was via the internet or Wi-Fi.
Equally, local council and business leaders know that having fast and reliable internet in their areas can not only boost productivity but attract the businesses of tomorrow.
This is even more pertinent when considering how different a post-pandemic economy will look and is why the government has made Project Gigabit one of its flagship levelling-up policies – to have 85 per cent of the UK able to access this speed by 2025.
Having large swathes of the UK able to access gigabit speeds will not only help us close the gap on our international neighbours but could be transformative for levelling-up our left-behind communities, especially in a post-pandemic economy of increased remote working.
But a new report released by the County APPG and the County Councils Network has found the fruits of Project Gigabit have so far not reached England’s county areas.
The progress – especially during a pandemic – in gigabit rollout has been rapid, but this has so far been focussed on London and the major cities. Just one in five (21 per cent) county premises have access to gigabit speeds, compared to 77 per cent of London and 51 per cent for large towns and cities in the North and West Midlands.
Many of my county MP colleagues fear our areas will become the poor relation in gigabit accessibility, as for years superfast broadband in rural areas lagged behind cities. The downscaling of the government’s gigabit target to 85 per cent coverage has only increased fears that the project will focus on the areas easiest to connect.
Whilst much of the work will be done by providers, the government has set aside £5bn to subsidise connections that would otherwise be uncommercial but has so far only committed £1.2bn up to 2025 – including just £100,000 this year. Due to their rural and remote geography, county areas have more uncommercial properties than urban locations with up to 40 per cent of some counties estimated to be uncommercial.
We are calling on the Chancellor to urgently ramp up investment for gigabit broadband in this week’s spending review – and for the government to then prioritise county areas in the rollout.
The report also recommends that gigabit accessibility can be improved if digital infrastructure budgets are devolved to county local authorities as part of devolution deals that are currently being negotiated.
Building Digital UK has done a commendable job, but local leaders know their areas best and can use their knowledge to target support to the hardest to reach households and business.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on many individuals in our areas – with the number of people claiming Universal Credit rising by 95 per cent in counties since March 2020 – and we must give them the best possible opportunities to gain employment or re-train for a new economy. Therefore, we suggest the government puts in place a scheme that subsidises digital access for those people.
We also look long-term: arguing that decent broadband connections should be included as standard with new developments.
Taken together, these recommendations could yield big results when it comes to levelling-up digital connectivity in county areas. Our residents and our economies cannot afford to be overlooked in the gigabit rollout.