Rural Broadband is Failing – because we don’t agree about the ‘rural’.

CC University of Gloucestershire
CC University of Gloucestershire

A great deal of attention and a considerable amount of money has been poured into the question of broadband in rural areas of the UK. Most of it has focused on the role the BT plays in this process, their protection of information about the results of the public monies they have received and the broad failure of the policy to deliver broadband to rural areas universally. The latest government promise is to beam broadband down by satellite. I’m sure that someone in academia is even now working on a piercing analysis of just has gone wrong with this policy.

I want to switch direction and look at how the UK government is increasingly challenging what is understood by ‘rural’ and it is here that we can see a new area of failure of the policy (slides here). To do that I’ll need to take a bit of a diversion through recent reports on economic growth in rural areas and that will start to illustrate what I mean.

First, let us start with the absolute killer ‘fact’ of superfast broadband (SFBB hereon) that is produces an economic multiplier effect of 20:1. Yes, for everyone one £ the government spends, £20 is generated elsewhere in the economy. In terms of infrastructure investment this is stupendous, in fact so incredible that it is often thought to be not credible. But it animates the discussion in policy circles about the importance of SFBB. Yet, and yet, the academic literature is unable to pin down quite what it is about broadband, let alone SFBB that leads to these changes. Rather it looks like a package of technology, skills and dispositions that make it over time (and that is important) transformational for businesses. A bit like a road, you need to be able to drive, you need a car/bike/truck/tractor, the highway code, petrol, tyres… you get the point. The literature suggests that broadband alone is transformational, the extra speed of SFBB is something of an unknown. But with claims like 20:1 then it is hard to ignore.

If we take a brief tour of the rural economy let us start with a few simple and illuminating figures. Without straining our calculators we can see that there are a lot of small business, probably micro businesses in rural areas that are employing people but not necessarily earning a great deal of money. Economists (and I am not one) will term this as a lack of productivity, under-employment or lack of skills or perhaps all three but rural areas are not performing as they might. If we look in greater detail at various reports we can see in some areas rural areas out perform urban areas, and can be more likely to trade outside of the UK. So within this group of small, not high earning businesses are a cadre of the highly skilled, very mobile who are doing very well but they are a minority.

So what are the high performing areas of the rural economy.

the rural economy accounts for 16% of employment, 26% of businesses, and 13% of turnover(Frontier Economics 2014:3).

This is a quote from a recent report on the economy of the rural UK, that is about private sector employment. We can see that health and social care, as well as social work are the major growth businesses. Perhaps as local authorities start to employ people differently by deploying their contracts in new ways. Then comes a slew of service sector jobs some of which are peculiarly rural others are more general in the economy. If we look at the worst performing sectors, manufacturing – which is more prevalent in rural areas than urban – is on the slide. This is not a picture of a vibrant rural economy but rather one that is being re-configured as state services change form.

If we start to look at how the government is beginning to imagine rural areas they are suggesting that in economic terms urban and rural areas are broadly similar. The only exception to this pattern is agriculture but that is only a small part of employment. Of course this argument immediately ignores land and resource use, that rural space is dominated by agriculture in the UK. It also separates out agriculture as requiring its own policies and in turn that will favour an intensification of the industry rather than viewing agriculture as part of a broader, integrated form of development. The second argument they are preparing is the importance of city regions and agglomeration.

The quest for a renewal of our economy is dominated by the search for the benefits to be gained from economic agglomeration, which is associated with the city region. It would seem that the argument is that infrastructure improvements would benefit rural and urban areas equally. This neatly side-steps for example the enhanced spending that London receives on transport infrastructure but also the rationale for pushing into sparse rural areas. It seems to me what is being suggested here is that we are going to see 2 rural areas in England.

Zone 1 will be those areas part of the emerging city regions

Zone 2 will be the sparse, agricultural areas.

The problem with this form of economically driven argument is that it ignores the traditions and life of rural communities but also reduces economic development to simplistic measures. Ironically Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and chair of a gathering of the C40 of the world’s most important cities argues almost the reverse:

As cities are increasingly demonstrating, talent attracts capital more effectively than capital attracts talent. People want to live in communities that offer healthy and family-friendly lifestyles: not only good schools and safe streets but also clean air, beautiful parks, and extensive mass transit systems. And where people want to live, businesses want to invest (Bloomberg 2015:120).

This would surely be a good guide for economic development in rural areas, that they should have the autonomy that cities are being granted and be allowed to make the quality of life that rural life can provide as the basis of rural economic development. Broadband can play a role in that but it is only part of a package, and reducing everything to economic impact is unlikely to achieve those goals. Rather it is a holistic integration, in which quality of life is able to attract investment from businesses no longer tied to a particular place.


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