Bridging the digital divide

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THE Culture Minister could not have been more prescient when he summarised the concerns of North Yorkshire MPs about the provision of broadband services in the county as this: “It’s going well, but could do better.”

As York Outer MP Julian Sturdy and others told Ed Vaizey, the provision of superfast broadband in England’s most rural county has been a tangible success story and it would be churlish not to acknowledge the considerable progress that has already been made.

Yet, as a succession of speeches by Conservative MPs made clear, the continuing uncertainty about the next phase of public money to roll out the communications equipment is creating a damaging digital divide – one village might have the very latest technology while a neighbouring hamlet is denied this opportunity.

On the day that the latest retail figures highlighted the economic importance of online shopping, the need to accelerate the installation rate was perfectly illustrated by Mr Sturdy when he highlighted the plight of a constituent who had moved from London to Askham Bryan. Even though this village is on the outskirts of York, and in close proximity to the main A64, the resident concerned cannot work from home – his original intention – because he does not have access to critical services like web-based video conferencing which householders will soon be able to take for granted in around 90 per cent of the country.

As such, it’s not just the remotest locations that are being left at a disadvantage, but villages that are home to an increasing number of professional people whose lives now revolve around internet access. This has implications far beyond the local area. North Yorkshire, to its credit, is well ahead ahead of the game in rolling out the new technology – but other rural counties up and down the country will soon be facing the same issues.

Yet, as Mr Sturdy pointed out, it is actually in Chancellor George Osborne’s interests to provide the long-term funding now so that the work of bodies like Superfast North Yorkshire does not come to a shuddering halt because of the financial uncertainty. After all, it is now accepted that the UK economy will benefit by £20 for every £1 invested by the Government in broadband – a remarkable rate of return by any standards – and that the rural economy has untapped potential if it has technology. Mr Vaizey knows the issues, he now needs to find a solution.

Retail therapy

IT is now clear that the festive retail results fall into three categories. First, there are the discount retailers – such as Aldi and Lidl – whose competitive prices have helped them to secure significant slices of the market share.

Next are the established supermarkets, like Leeds-based Asda and Sainsbury’s, which held their own. And then there are those chains, such as Yorkshire institution Morrisons and Tesco, which saw a slide in their sales.

It was the same among the major high street names – John Lewis’s success contrasting with the sluggishness of Marks & Spencer. The latter’s results are even more disappointing if the sales provided by its popular food division are taken out of the equation.

Both Morrisons and Marks & Spencer blame the internet for their difficulties.

The former’s online presence is still in its infancy while the latter has only just begun to embrace technology already being utilised by rivals such as Next.

Yet the internet should not be viewed as the be all and end all of Britain’s retail revolution.

Today’s customers are far more discerning – loyalty has to be earned – and when shoppers do venture into a physical store they are looking for value for money and, above all else, good customer service.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that both Morrisons and M&S are struggling to meet these criteria. Their respective bosses Dalton Philips and Marc Bolland were both equally unconvincing as they tried to blame the internet for their results.

As both fight for their 
jobs, they should realise that it is old-fashioned – and often overlooked – values that hold the key to the future not just of their 
roles, but of the retail 
giants over which they preside.

A long-term post

MARJORIE Goldthorpe has seen enormous change over the course of half-a-century as a postmistress.

She started work when Beatlemania erupted, Beeching announced his rail cuts and Harold Wilson became Prime Minister.

Since then the world has moved on – and so has its preferred means of communication.

Letter-writing has become something of a lost art in the age of emails and tweets, while at the same time companies and organisations are striving to become paperless operations.

It has meant working life at her post office in Great Preston, near Leeds, has changed immeasurably for Marjorie in recent years.

One thing that still holds true, however, is the fundamental importance of post offices and the range of services they provide to local communities, particularly those in more rural areas.

As the shift to alternative forms of communication gathers pace, this enduring contribution must not be overlooked or undervalued.