Digital Workplaces for Rural Communities

Access to digital workplaces are at the heart of future economic prosperity for rural communities.

The Lord’s Rural Select Committee report, published last month, sent a clear message to Government. Let’s have no more excuses, urban-centric policy strategies must come to an end. The lack of support given to rural communities was condemned in the report as ‘systemic and structural’, with a disproportionate allocation of funding affecting access to both services and opportunity. It’s time for a level playing field, in order that we can protect and prepare the rural economy for future challenges and ensure that the gaps between rural and urban economies are bridged.

The final report is reflective of the key points we raised in our submission last November. Most keenly stressed, was the double bind rural communities face in relation to the advancements of our digital age.  A lack of digital and mobile infrastructure sees rural communities not only losing out to the digital revolution and the advances it brings, but alarmingly rural communities are now being further disadvantaged and isolated by the move of service provision onto online portals that they’re unable to access.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Lord’s Foster’s summation that ‘doing nothing is no longer an option’ and a broad and revolutionary rural strategy is needed, now. From my position as LEP Chair, for the largest rural LEP in the country, I would stress that digital infrastructure should underpin, and be central to such a strategy.

Across our patch, there is a story to tell, about the strides we’re making to build digital connectivity. As our urban centre, York enjoys its status as the country’s most digitally connected city and our rural towns are capitalising on this. Both North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) and East Riding have made significant investments into ultrafast broadband. Last year NYnet (owned by NYCC) was awarded £15m to create networks across 16 of our market towns with ultrafast broadband – that means city centre broadband speeds in rural market towns. Local Growth funding has also been used across North Yorkshire, to increase 4G mobile capability and reduce ‘not-spots’. 

Speaking with Carl Les about the progress being made in North Yorkshire, and he commented, “We’ve long recognised that high-quality digital infrastructure is essential for the success of business, for education, health and social care and to meet the everyday needs of residents, particularly in a largely rural county such as North Yorkshire.

“That’s why we are at the forefront of investing in and supporting both the development of superfast broadband, where we are pressing on towards 100 per cent coverage, and improved mobile connectivity, where our forward-thinking approach in establishing links with mobile operators has been highlighted nationally.”

The Lord’s report makes reference to Carl’s latter point.  We strongly believe that there is potential for mobile networks to work collaboratively with each other, and the public sector, to eliminate hot-spots altogether. There’s a way to go, but assuming we’ve got the technology on the way – the next question is so what? How do we use this infrastructural investment as a stimulus for growth of the rural economy?

Aside from the recognised benefits of home-working that could be bought about by increased digital infrastructure, economic advancement is intricately woven with the technological advancements in every work place. I have talked recently in this column about the challenges that online shopping bring to the high-street and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in rural towns and villages. Our investment in a C4Di Digital Hub on former prison site in Northallerton, marks a route forward for market towns looking evolve a future more fit for purpose. The digital innovation hub will create a cluster of digital businesses in the town centre with wider benefits for the area, bringing together entrepreneurs and small businesses from key sectors, to employ new technologies and raise productivity. We could take this opportunity even further, to leverage local specialisms with a Barclays Eagles Labs approach, and create an agri-tech focussed digital hub in the town. 

Agri-tech is a growing industry, and driven by advancements made by university research and innovation right here on our patch. As the digital sector appeals to a younger age group, an agri-tech focussed digital hub would be a shrewd bringing together of IT advancements and sector skills. Digital technologies are central to retaining a younger workforce in the region, and as such we have made significant investments in both digital and agri-tech skills across the patch, at York College, East Riding College, Bishop Burton College, Scarborough Tec and Askham Bryan.

With the right digital infrastructure, we’d have the potential to grow and substantiate the offering for young people to learn advanced digital skills in a college close to home. To capitalise for future growth, we need to stimulate industry now and create a pipeline of opportunity that extends across our key sectors and broad geography.

I am very excited at the potential of our programme, Grow Yorkshire, to feed and develop the future opportunities around agri-tech and strengthening of rurally based businesses. I want to use this platform to engage government in opportunities across our patch where we can test strategy. However, the key strength of the Lord’s Report, is its intrinsic understanding that a strategy for rural economy needs to go beyond agriculture and environment, and embrace the full spectrum of rural life. Most significantly, the role and interplay of rural economies in healthy urban and national economies needs to be grasped by policy makers now, for the benefit of a stronger country in the future. We are determined to ensure Government constantly receives the message that change must happen, in how they approach and support agriculture, food, farming and the countryside. Our Rural Powerhouse is ready for the challenges ahead, but we need to see rural proofing is in place to ensure the gap between urban and rural does not widen further.

This article was written for The Yorkshire Post by David. A. Kerfoot MBE DL, Chair of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership.

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