“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.