Greg Wright: Why we need a Digital Engagement Tsar for the North of England

SOME divisions do not leave obvious scars on the political landscape.

A debate about digital inclusion was held at Engage Interactive in Leeds.

While Brexit has driven sides behind the barricades, other issues, which are just as damaging and divisive, are simply being ignored.

We are on the brink of becoming two nations due to the great digital divide. While technology firms based in city centres create jobs and win clients on a global scale, whole communities feel they are trapped in the digital slow lane.

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Anyone who questions this inconvenient truth should have attended an event organised by Leeds Community Foundation, which provided ample evidence of the challenges ahead.

Research suggests that a quarter of Leeds residents fear they have been left behind by the digital revolution. One in five people in Leeds claim they lack the digital skills required to participate in the modern world.

In all probability, similar problems will be encountered in towns and cities across the North. Over time, these divisions will become wider and it will be harder for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain a place on the career ladder.

Stuart Clarke, the director of the Leeds Digital Festival. who participated in the debate, told me: “Leeds is growing quickly in the tech sector with lots of wealth and lots of jobs being created, but we are in real danger of creating a two-tier city and leaving lots of communities behind.

“The key thing is co-ordination. There are so many amazing projects and organisations but if we are not co-ordinating them and linking them together we are in danger of missing entire communities out.”

He called for more engagement with teachers and headteachers to make them aware of the wide variety of digital jobs that are available.

“A lot of it is about role models, ’’ he added. “If nobody in your community works in tech then you’re not going to think about having a career in tech.

“So you have to reach out as a tech sector and go into these schools and communities and say. ‘I’m like you and you could be me in three to five years.”’

Kate Hainsworth, the CEO of Leeds Community Foundation, is concerned that gaps in skills and knowledge may be widening.

She said: “The giant strides that are being made in terms of digital progress do mean that those who are struggling to engage are getting left further and further behind.”

I chaired the debate and it was inspiring and heartening to see so many business leaders who were committed to reducing the digital divide.

Many are keen to spread the word about digital careers by becoming school governors. Some incredible work is being done to raise aspirations among young people who might have decided that a technology career was not for them.

But we should have no illusions about the challenges ahead. Recent research by the think-tank Centre for Towns shows the region is lagging behind the rest of country when it comes to securing digital jobs, employing only 55,000, or 4.4 per cent, of the industry’s 1.2 million workforce.

Yorkshire’s burgeoning digital sector is being stifled by poor transport links across the region and patchy broadband connectivity, according to the Centre for Towns.

Centre for Towns co-founder Ian Warren said: “This report highlights how digital sector jobs are disproportionately found in London and the major cities. It’s easy to see how, if these trends continue, the digital divide worsens and the jobs of the future are found in London and the major cities whilst our towns continue to lie neglected.”

So how do we confront these challenges? One obvious solution is to create a Digital Engagement Tsar for the North of England who will be responsible for co-ordinating the work to reduce digital divisions.

The tsar will focus on work to improve digital skills among the poor and marginalised. He or she can ensure all the projects to encourage digital inclusion, such as tablet libraries and classes to improve understanding of technology, work in unison. This bold approach really could destroy forces that are ripping us apart.