The North of England is facing a digital divide, warn political leaders

Coun Susan Hinchcliffe  Picture Tony Johnson
Coun Susan Hinchcliffe Picture Tony Johnson
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Political leaders have warned that the North faces the prospect of a digital and economic divide caused by an “uncoordinated and inefficient” rollout of full fibre internet connections across the UK.

In an open letter, more than 20 town and city leaders across the North of England warn that private investment in digital infrastructure could be undermined if two or more full fibre networks are built in the same place. This duplicative approach, they argue, could double the disruption, while other parts of the Northern Powerhouse risk missing out altogether.

The leaders are calling on infrastructure providers, overseen by the Government and Ofcom, to ensure that the maximum possible coverage is delivered in the shortest possible time.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which has organised the letter, has called on the Government to deliver full fibre to the premises (FTTP) to every business and home in the top 30 Northern towns and cities by 2025.

The report claimed that 50 per cent full fibre coverage across the Northern Powerhouse would be worth £26.2bn to the economy, rising to £47.2bn with 90 per cent coverage. The letter has been signed by political leaders from 10 Yorkshire councils.

Representing the group, Coun Susan Hinchcliffe, the chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and leader of Bradford Council, said: “The social and economic advantages unlocked by full fibre investment are immense, and sit alongside the major new and improved transport connectivity which we also need, such as through the Northern Powerhouse Rail network with a city centre Bradford station.

“These digital networks must be rolled-out as quickly and efficiently as possible if the Northern Powerhouse is to maximise the benefits.

“Through its refresh of the Northern Powerhouse strategy, the Government can show how it will address the weaknesses in the current regime which create waste and inefficiencies. They should give combined authorities the powers and flexibility on capital funding to deliver this vitally important infrastructure for our businesses and communities.”

Northern Powerhouse Partnership Director Henri Murison said: “Towns and cities across the Northern Powerhouse eagerly anticipate full fibre roll-out and its transformative potential to unlock productivity. But this letter highlights leaders’ concern that the North’s full fibre future is at risk from uncoordinated investment, acting against the interests of business and home customers.

“In some cases we are seeing the needless duplication of full fibre networks, while at the same time, short distances away, other Northern towns and cities with no planned investment, risk being left behind on antiquated copper networks, missing out on the huge benefits full fibre brings.

“If we are to close the productivity gap between North and South we need to be attracting businesses to come here and help others grow. Digital connectivity can and must play a major role.”

The North of England now has better superfast coverage than the rest of the UK, according to a Government spokesman.

The spokesman said; “The Government’s rollout of superfast broadband has helped take coverage in the North of England from 47.2 per cent to 96.73 per cent since 2010 and we are determined to ensure all parts of the country, including the North, benefits from next-generation full-fibre technology.

“We are working with the industry to ensure households and businesses across the Northern Powerhouse and beyond get the connections they deserve. This includes committing over £1bn of government investment for broadband connections across the country.”