Greg Wright: Digital deserts in Yorkshire betray legacy of JB Priestley

JB Priestley's work was synonymous with the Dales Way.
JB Priestley's work was synonymous with the Dales Way.
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TO the writer and broadcaster JB Priestley, it was one of the smallest but most pleasant places on earth.

The tiny settlement of Hubberholme stands on a superhighway of the long-distance walking world, the Dales Way, which winds its way from Ilkley to the shores of Bowness in the Lake District.

Priestley, whose BBC broadcasts helped to stiffen the nation’s resolve during the darkest days of the Second World War, believed Hubberholme was the perfect refuge from the hurly-burly of literary London. He’s now a perpetual resident, because his ashes are scattered in the hamlet’s churchyard.

For the long distance walker, Hubberholme is the perfect place to pause and ponder. It also marks the spot where, in all probability, your mobile phone loses its signal, assuming it hadn’t given up the ghost earlier in the day, or even the day before.

The lush landscape cannot hide the fact that you’ve entered a digital desert, where your mobile phone becomes a dead weight. You are unwillingly thrust back into a world Priestley knew well, where the nearest public phone box could be a two-hour walk away. You are entering a communications black hole that is inexcusable in 21st century Britain.

Priestley would have been horrified to find that communities at the heart of the Dales have been betrayed in this way. He believed technology could be a great educator and liberator. Priestley loved the magic spell cast by the wartime “wireless”. The radio service he helped to promote was truly democratic. His rich tones could be heard by rich and poor, villager and city-dweller alike.

Today, our flawed mobile telecoms system is reinforcing the widening economic divide between the cities and the countryside. Rural communities have already been hit by the closures of pubs, post offices and banks. It’s blithely assumed, for example, that internet banking can serve the needs of those living far removed from city centres. This argument, of-course, fails to take into account a wider economic truth; that a single branch closure can rip the heart out of a small market town or village.

Digital deserts blight and punish everyone who tries to live and work in the British countryside. A walk on the 80-mile Dalesway offers a glimpse, at least, of some of the pressures faced by businesses on the route. On our journey we encountered hosts who were committed to locally sourced food and protecting the environment. There are free-to-use Wi-Fi hotspots available for customers at pubs, cafés and bed and breakfasts throughout the Dales, although you must be careful not to hog the bandwidth.

However, as the Yorkshire Dales National Park acknowledges, there are places where it is simply impossible to pick up a signal for your mobile phone or mobile internet connection, and this applies to towns as well as hilltops.

We are a nation trapped in the digital slow-lane. A recent report from the National Infrastructure Commission makes grim reading. Countries including Albania, Panama and Peru were found to have better connectivity than the UK, which ranked just 54th in the world in terms of 4G coverage, which is the current fastest standard of mobile internet.

Another report, from the British Infrastructure Group of MPs, found that 17 million UK residents have poor mobile reception, and identified 525 ‘not-spots’ where coverage was simply non-existent.

The report said mobile phone coverage in the UK had not improved significantly since 2014, when the government agreed a £5bn investment deal with the network operators.

As the group’s report states, it is absurd that visitors to the UK receive better and broader mobile coverage, because foreign SIM cards – which connect the user to the network of their choice – enable roaming across national networks. In contrast, there is no such agreement among the mobile phone providers for Britons.

The latest estimate provided by BIG suggests that 28 per cent of all rural areas in the UK remain without coverage. The British Infrastructure Group’s report highlighted the failure of the Mobile Infrastructure Project, which identified 600 potential sites for new phone masts in 2013.

However, by the end of the financial year 2015-16, the project had built just 75 masts, which is truly pitiful.

The key targets of the £5bn agreement, especially the industry’s commitment to provide mobile voice coverage to 90 per cent of Britain, are highly unlikely to be achieved this year.

This is a scandalous case of neglect. The mobile network providers are hardly impoverished. Their top brass are well remunerated. An effective Government would order the senior executives to give up their bonuses until the 90 per cent target is hit. Otherwise what is the point in the agreement?

Better still, I would expect the regulator to order the senior figures at these network providers to hand over their bonuses for the last three years, so that this cash could be spent on improving connectivity in places like Hubberholme.

That really would smack of strong and stable Government.

Greg Wright is deputy business editor of The Yorkshire Post.