Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

GUEST POST: Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter 

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

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This piece was written for Digital Tories

Boris the builder

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

Boris Johnson once described himself as ‘basically a Brexity Hezza’. What he meant by that was that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine shared a penchant for ‘grands projets’.

The prime minister’s announcement that, despite ballooning costs, HS2 would go ahead underlined his fondness for giant infrastructure schemes. At the same time, he also gave the green light to Northern Powerhouse Rail and promised massive investment in the bus network and in cycle superhighways. As if these were not enough, there were also announcements about 5G roll-out, and plans for up to ten freeports.

Aside from his personal predilection for such projects, the stream of announcements around HS2 also reflected the hard-headed calculation by Tory strategists that the best way to signal to former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands that their Damascene conversion would not go unrewarded was to at least start to address the long-running imbalance between investment in London and the South East, and the rest of the country. In order to do so the government had to tear-up long-standing Treasury rules on return on investment.

Aside from the cynical political calculation of the announcements they were also designed to take advantage of the historically low rates of interest on offer to stable governments, such as the UK’s. An added bonus is the prospect of, over time, using infrastructure investment to help to address the issue of low productivity that has plagued the UK for many years.

Boris Johnson’s track record of delivering on giant infrastructure projects is patchy. He can certainly claim much of the credit for the effective delivery of the 2012 London Olympics, and Crossrail was on time and on budget under his watch when he was London Mayor. However, the Garden Bridge scheme across the Thames was a costly fiasco, and during his time as Mayor he had vehemently opposed Heathrow expansion. Instead he championed ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary – a feasible but controversial project.

But these past, present and future ‘grands projets’ – including talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – are like their progenitor; they are not just very big, they are very bold.

The prime minister is proposing and championing them partly because of political and economic necessity, but also with an eye to his legacy. Boris wants to go down in history not just as a winner, but as a builder.

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This piece was written for our website.