Sarah Lee: Rural Britain stuck in digital slow lane

WE all want to live in a countryside which is vibrant and thriving, but as many of us know that is not always the case. We are seeing a decline in services, healthcare centralised, banks and pubs closing. Yet despite this, the countryside is still seen as a desirable place to live and the rural population is rising.

Improved broadband is key to the future of the rural economy, say the Countryside Alliance.
Improved broadband is key to the future of the rural economy, say the Countryside Alliance.

Shining a light on the issues and problems faced by the countryside has been the goal of a recently formed committee in the House of Lords. The committee is examining all aspects of the rural economy and will make recommendations to the Government early next year.

The chairman, Lord Foster of Bath, has said “the voices of those living in rural communities are vital to this inquiry” and so we asked those who live and work in the countryside what their priorities are in an online survey, and over 1,000 people responded. This shows the strength of feeling amongst rural communities of how important the rural economy and the future of their communities is to them.

Our research showed that 70 per cent of those who responded ranked digital infrastructure/connectivity as the key to unlocking the potential of the rural economy and yet it is still lacking in many rural areas. Respondents were concerned that slow internet speeds were a barrier to growth, the lack of connectivity was leading to increased isolation and social exclusion, and that fibre connectivity should be available to all, no matter where they live.

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    These are concerns that we share. We believe that high-speed broadband and mobile connectivity are essential services alongside water, electricity and gas. Over one million premises in rural areas still don’t have access to decent broadband, meaning that 17 per cent of rural homes and businesses are unable to receive decent broadband and 82 per cent can’t receive a 4G signal.

    Continued poor connectivity in rural areas represents a huge missed opportunity for economic development and these gaps and weaknesses need to be addressed as a priority. The lack of broadband infrastructure serving small firms threatens the expansion of a rural economy worth £400bn annually to the UK economy.

    When we leave the EU, the Government must be more ambitious than the EU in digital connectivity to ensure that we can not only compete economically with our urban neighbours, but our European ones as well. The Government must also promote and support alternative technologies, such as satellite and mobile broadband, which can deliver connectivity to remoter rural areas where fibre cables will not reach.

    The Countryside Alliance has long campaigned on this issue and will continue to fight to ensure that rural broadband and mobile coverage is as accessible in the countryside as it is in urban areas.

    Delivering a strong economy, increased productivity and thriving communities cannot be achieved without recognising the vital role the countryside has to play. Post-Brexit, the countryside has a key role to play in boosting UK productivity and must get its fair share of funding for digital connectivity, regulations which support rural businesses, and services such as policing and access to healthcare which meet the needs of rural communities.

    It is clear that Brexit will continue to be front and centre of the work of this Parliament, and the decision to leave the EU will have a profound impact on the countryside.

    However, issues such as the lack of affordable housing or the roll-out of broadband in the countryside continue to be substantial challenges facing this government, which is why this Parliamentary inquiry is important. It is the first time that a committee has considered such a broad range of rural issues at any one time.

    We now look to the House of Lords committee to press the Government as to why the countryside is being held back economically because of a lack of digital connectivity and take forward our suggestions for improvement on all areas affecting the sustainability of rural communities.

    Without a flourishing rural economy, there would not be the rural communities and landscapes as we know them today. It is essential that the people who live and work in the countryside are able to engage fully in the economic life of the country and that the Government delivers the means to do this.

    Sarah Lee is head of policy 
at the Countryside Alliance.