On Tuesday 13th October, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, attended the virtual APPG on Rural Services chaired by Rt Hon Phillip Dunne MP for Ludlow to discuss the group’s submission to the Spending Review.
Phillip Dunne quizzed the Chief Secretary on broadband and mobile connectivity, which were a focus of the Countryside Alliance’s submission. Jerome Mayhew MP for Broadland raised energy infrastructure and decarbonisation whilst Greg Smith for Buckingham discussed healthcare access with the Minister.
Last month, we published our full submission for the Comprehensive Spending Review which covered topics such as rural crime, business rates, post offices and broadband.
Our Chief Executive, Tim Bonner who attended the meeting said: “We were very grateful that the Chief Secretary, following the example set by his predecessors, has engaged with representatives of the rural community to discuss the spending review. This is a fundamental part of ‘rural proofing’, the process by which government can assure people in the countryside that their needs are being properly considered. The Alliance was particularly concerned that the Chief Secretary confirmed the government’s manifesto commitment to delivering full fibre and gigabit capable broadband to the countryside by 2025 and that he understood small businesses and entrepreneurship can thrive in the countryside, but only with the right infrastructure. We were also pleased to hear that the Treasury views ‘levelling up’ as not just an issue between the North and South, but also between the countryside and urban areas.”
Our main asks for broadband that have been put forward as part of the submission are:
- Delivering full fibre and gigabit capable broadband to the countryside by 2025 - as committed to in the Conservative General Election Manifesto - must remain a Government priority.
- Increased investment in full fibre connectivity by broadband operators is to be welcomed but this financial commitment must be also committed in hard to reach rural areas – or ‘not-spots’ - to ensure they can also benefit from the opportunities that fibre connection brings.
- 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.
- Economic productivity is 16% lower in rural areas. The current lack of broadband infrastructure serving small firms threatens the expansion of the rural economy which is currently worth £400bn annually. The business opportunity includes 28 per cent of all UK firms and over one million small businesses.
- The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the necessity of good connectivity as we have seen more businesses operating remotely, home-working increase, and online communities spring up to tackle isolation during lockdown. While we work out what the new normal is, one thing is clear that work patterns, travel, and how we conduct our lives will change, and as we come out the other side we will be more reliant than ever on digital connectivity.
- At current levels of broadband rollout only 1 million homes are being connected a year to superfast. If the Government is going to match its manifesto commitment this needs to increase to 4 million a year. To deliver the required outcome of levelling up economic opportunity and investing in infrastructure, Government needs to increase funding and deliver regulatory change such as planning, street work permits and business rates for fibre.