This week saw the Chancellor present the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review which promised £5bn to build the UK Gigabit Broadband Programme. This had aimed to rollout gigabit enabled broadband to everyone, particularly focussing on trying to identify and tackle the final 20%. This commitment had already been rowed back from a promise to deliver full fibre to every home. The Conservatives were elected on the gigabit enabled broadband for all manifesto commitment. However, the publication of the National infrastructure Strategy and the CSR saw that commitment slashed to 85% by the end of 2025 leaving 15% of households wondering how they are going to get a gigabit broadband connection.
When you dig deeper into this £5bn commitment, the government has only allocated £1.2bn up to 2024 with the promise of more funding to be allocated over the next four years to support the rollout of gigabit broadband to the hardest to reach areas which are mainly in rural Britain. In 2024 when the initial allocation of funding runs out, we will be having an election and once again rural communities are going to be looking at the manifesto pledges of the parties wondering who is actually going to deliver broadband connectivity to them. The government is also acknowledging that the network is still going to be built beyond 2025.
So where does this leave the countryside. This row back is a major blow for rural communities who have been crying out for better digital connectivity for decades. We all hear the government talk of levelling up the north/south divide and building back better but where does this leave the countryside? There was very little in the CSR for them and with rural productivity 16% below national average, the government needs to close that gap and one way would be by delivering on its promise for gigabit enabled broadband by 2025 unlocking the potential of the rural economy.
Fundamentally, if the government is committed to growing the economy post COVID-19 and building back better, then the government’s new green plan and other initiatives must involve those who live, work and manage the countryside, which as currently presented it does not do enough.