The Countryside Alliance hosted a fringe event on digital skills at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Monday 3 October. The event, entitled Tackling Digital Exclusion in the Countryside, was an opportunity to discuss how best to tackle a lack of skills and confidence in using digital technology which faces many rural communities and businesses.

More of the economic and social life of our country is moving online. Access to high speed broadband is now widely recognised as an essential service alongside water, electricity and gas. It has been a challenge to this, and previous, governments to roll out broadband in the countryside. This should be finally addressed with the Universal Service Obligation (USO) in the Digital Economy Bill, but the question of digital skills remains unanswered.

The challenge facing many rural communities and businesses that are connected to the internet is a lack of skills and confidence to use digital technology. This is preventing them from befitting from broadband connectivity. Digital skills are now necessary life skills and we must aspire for the whole population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in social and economic life. However, a recent Parliamentary inquiry into digital skills reported that “there is a digital divide where up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills. An estimated 5.8 million people have never used the internet at all. This digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP.”

Earlier this month, the Government announced plans to make the UK one of the most digitally skilled nations. The proposals, to be included in the Digital Economy Bill, will mean publicly-funded basic digital skills training being offered free of charge to adults in England who need it. The question still remains about how this training is going to be delivered, particularly in rural areas. The Countryside Alliance fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference brought together a panel of experts to discuss this, chaired by the CA Chief Executive, Tim Bonner.

Sheryll Murray MP, Conservative MP for North Cornwall, stressed the importance of rural connectivity for this human purpose of reducing isolation, as well as boosting business in the countryside.

Councillor Mark Hawthorne, Leader of Gloucestershire Council, explained that faster broadband was key to delivering new public service initiatives including the rollout of Universal Credit. He said that local government was struggling at present as it sought to serve both “digital natives and elderly tech-phobic customers.” There would need to make “hard choices” about closing non-digital provision.

Simon Miller, Head of Government and Regulatory Affairs at Three, outlined the work of Three’s digital skills program ‘Discovery’ which is providing digital training to people of all ages and backgrounds. However, he noted that the private sector could not carry all responsibility for delivering digital skills and urged the government to stop treating digital skills as a “fringe issue.”

Tim O’Sullivan, Director of Public Affairs at BT, emphasised the progress that had been made in rolling out superfast broadband, noting the Government’s targets and promise of a USO. However, he acknowledged that there was a percentage of people who had still not been reached, and who felt ill-served and angry.

Emma Penny, Group Head of Content at Farmers Guardian, said that many readers had expressed concern about the announcement of a “digital by default” public services approach, given that many rural residents did not trust the internet. A survey of farmers had found that some 22 per cent of respondents did not use the internet for farm business, or did not possess a computer.

The reality is that our social and economic life is moving online faster than people are able to use the internet. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the countryside. In order to prevent the digital divide between town and country growing even wider we must address how this exclusion can be tackled, and challenge whether “digital by default” is the best approach.