It would be to overstate the significance of this blog somewhat *coughs* to suggest that George Osborne’s article in yesterday’s Telegraph was a direct rebuttal of my own piece about how ‘the digital deficit’ was a factor in rural economies’ relative underperformance. Always good to see that more than a few minds are debating the issue, however.
Now, before you read the chancellor’s article it’s worth remembering that Mr Osborne wrote it in search of something: your vote. So you may wish to take its general tone of unadulterated optimism with a sprinkle of salt. Take, for example, the fact that he points out 23 per cent of registered businesses are in rural areas, generating a not inconsiderable £210bn of GDP per annum. Impressive, until you work out that that is just 11.4 per cent of total UK output, which he fails to note. Not exactly matching volume with productivity, these rural enterprises.
That said, news that more than 90 per cent of the UK is now covered by 4G is to be welcomed. As a new subscriber to that particular part of our spectrum I can confirm that 3G is pants by comparison. Not having been roving yet in the deep valleys of the Forest of Bowland, however, I’ve no idea if the minor inconvenience of a large hill or two has any effect on people’s ability actually to log onto it. Past evidence with 3G suggests they might struggle.
Let us assume that the sunlit technological uplands Mr Osborne describes truly deliver the level playing field which will give rural enterprises equal access to the digital market. What then? Will they be able to go toe-to-toe with their urban counterparts? Patchily, at best, would be my summation.
Why? Because of the other factors that drive innovation, competitiveness and performance which cities have in abundance and which small towns and pretty barns in remote valleys don’t: access to talent, opportunities for collaboration, the chance to learn from supply chains and the benefits of clustering. Plus the soft factors that draw all those things together in the first place: culture, educational institutes, medical facilities, public transport and the sheer economic drive of a place.
The government’s investment and exhortations are to be welcomed – of course they are. And there’s no doubt that many enterprising businesses will pick up on the opportunities they offer and run with them, strengthening rural economies as they go. But let’s not conflate that to mean that the wider competitiveness issue has been addressed because, by definition, it can’t be.