Government under fire over technology focus on capital

THE chief executive of BT’s Openreach business has called into question the Government’s flagship technology initiative, claiming that a more entrepreneurial “work-wherever-you-are” culture will deliver the fastest and fairest economic recovery across the whole of Britain.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have both given strong backing to Tech City, a cluster of 700 digital and creative companies in east London, which they hope will become a rival to California’s Silicon Valley.

But Olivia Garfield, one of Britain’s most powerful technology executives, suggested that the cluster approach could exclude other parts of the UK, waste regional talent and make the economic recovery even slower.

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The Yorkshirewoman said the UK would benefit more from “everybody thinking in the mindset of ‘technology is good and technology is here so make use of it wherever you are’”.

“I’m not sure you need a set location,” added Ms Garfield, who is overseeing BT’s £2.5bn investment to make optical fibre-based superfast broadband available to two-thirds of UK premises by 2014.

She told the Yorkshire Post: “You can’t have such a reliance on cities. You have to create something which is not about a hub.

“I would contest that if you create something where you have to go, it limits how many people you can ever have showing up somewhere.

“You have to create a sense that it is more entrepreneurial; it is more ‘work wherever you are’ because then we can use bright people in the Orkneys as easy as we can use bright people down in Cornwall.

“If you can create that sense, it is going to be the quickest recovery... you could share it across the UK.

“The slower recovery is you choose a number of places and you say ‘we are going to make them hotspots and we are going to try to get people to gravitate towards them’.

“I’m not sure that helps you get the best out of all your talent and it’s a talent situation we’re after, isn’t it?

“You have this whole wave of people who can’t get jobs. We have got to utilise all the talent we have got in the UK and put it together.”

The high-flyer contrasted the British approach to innovation with Israel’s, the country with the highest number of start-ups outside Silicon Valley.

“This is an amazing cultural situation. They are brewing with ideas. You never meet somebody who’s not doing a start-up. That’s their dynamic.

“I’m not sure creating a tech centre is culturally creating a next generation of youth that have technology at the heart of their lives.”

Ms Garfield said investment from BT and the Government – which is spending £830m on broadband infrastructure in remote areas – could create the best broadband network in Europe, with 90 per cent of coverage.

She added: “The Government’s ambition is spot on. It wants the UK to be the most connected society in Europe. Its ambition is to try and create an impetus that allows the UK to recover from recession quicker. It’s got to work out the best way of doing it.

“We would suggest the best way is to get everyone connected to make everyone use it seamlessly in their entire life.”

Ms Garfield cited research showing that some parts of the country will take 20 years to fully recover from the recession. She said BT’s investment will help with economic recovery across the UK.

As a national employer, the £19bn company depends on all parts of the UK being successful.

She said superfast broadband will help small businesses compete with big businesses by giving them access to much faster speeds at more affordable prices.

Mr Garfield added: “If you have fibre access into some of the regions much quicker, you will create new economies that you haven’t even conceived of.

“We have seen that in Cornwall. We have seen businesses that grow in size, double their employee base but also decide ‘I can stay here, I don’t need to move somewhere else to grow’.”

She claimed the investment will help the UK come out of recession “more fairly across the whole country, rather than make it London-centric”.

She also predicted that faster broadband will lead to better education with an increase in shared learning and more inward investment with international companies attracted by good quality infrastructure that allows employees to work from home.

Ms Garfield, who is 36, grew up in Harrogate.