The Government’s long-awaited Levelling Up plan was finally unveiled in February, featuring a renewed focus on the priorities that were made way back during the 2019 general election but were unfortunately thrown to the wayside by a certain worldwide pandemic
Three years is a long time for these issues of regional inequalities to sit unaddressed.
Post-COVID, the issue has become even more critical. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that COVID-19 has intensified many of the disparities between regions that the Levelling Up plan seeks to address.
As the nation moves to life post-lockdown, the shift towards hybrid working has already started to unlock the potential of digital transformation when it comes to levelling up the UK. Our own research last year with the Cebr revealed that a continued shift to regional movements due to remote working could result in a talent and skills boost for local economies.
In short, digital tech has a huge role to play in levelling up the UK. And if we want to realise this potential, the time to act is now.
Levelling Up ‘Missions’
The plan announced by the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, incorporates 12 ‘missions’ to be completed by 2030 and which are set to be enshrined in law.
Arguably, at least nine of these missions require digital investment to reach their full potential, with one miss in particular where this will be fundamental – ‘nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage by 2030’ (with 5G for the majority).
But the ripple effects of widespread connectivity and investment in digital skills and infrastructure are what makes achieving many of the other levelling up targets possible.
In fact, Elizabeth Anderson, Chief Operating Officer at Digital Poverty Alliance recently noted in a blog post that digital access “runs through many of the 12 missions”. From rises in pay, employment, and productivity, to improved transport, health, and wellbeing, to increased research and development investment, high-quality skills training, and boosted primary school literacy – all of these goals are underpinned by improved connectivity.
Cllr Mark Hawthorne, Digital connectivity spokesperson for the Local Government Association recently responded to the white paper noting that “tackling the digital divide will be important to levelling up in every community, ensuring everyone has the connectivity they need to thrive.”
Meanwhile, Helen Milner OBE, Group Chief Executive at leading digital exclusion charity Good Things Foundation, stated: “The pandemic has given us first-hand experience of how digital is essential to our lives, to our society – and Gove’s 12 missions misses an opportunity to address this.?Prosperity across our nation depends on whether we fix the digital divide and centre those with low to no digital skills, those without a device or those experiencing data poverty. Only once these issues are tackled will the UK meaningfully level up.”
Impact of digital transformation
Investing in digital infrastructure can directly help both people and businesses succeed by driving economic growth, creating jobs, and improving the daily lives of local people. Levelling Up is more than just about improving a region’s economic status, although this is a clear focus.
For example, free connectivity in community spaces provides real benefits for local residents, whether that is the ability to use online services for banking or booking GP appointments, or having more opportunities to develop digital skills, learn how to use the internet safely, or look for employment.
Making these services more accessible to everyone in a community, no matter their employment status or background, can make a real difference. Young people also gain the advantage of having more places to get online and complete their schoolwork, ensuring that fewer children are at risk of digital exclusion, and are thus more likely to reach their education potential.
This direct and lasting positive impact of investing in robust modern connectivity is already being realised around the UK.
In Greater Manchester, Virgin Media Business was appointed to deliver up to 2,700km of new fibre optic broadband infrastructure across the region, connecting more than 1,500 public sites. This has delivered more than £12m worth of economic benefits to the region in the first year alone through the programme’s commitment to local employment.
According to the Cebr, continued investment in digital could help to grow the UK economy as a whole by £232 billion by 2040.
Over the next 20 years, it will transform the way we work and live, increasing productivity and output, radically improving our economy, creating jobs, and making our communities healthier and more secure. This is directly linked to the goals of the Levelling Up plan.
The Levelling Up plan shows promising signs. There is no doubt that government focus and support for digital investment as part of Levelling Up is a cause for optimism. Now there is a framework in place, there is a cross-society responsibility, whether it’s central or local, voluntary or private, to work together to ensure these plans are made a reality. Wide recognition of the vital role of digital across the proposed missions will need to be a priority for UK citizens to truly feel the impact of Levelling Up in their everyday lives.
Is Levelling Up an achievable dream for the UK? What do these policies mean for the digital divide in various regions of the country?
Join us for our inaugural Connected North conference in Manchester, bringing together stakeholders from across the North to sort the fact from fiction and discuss what needs to be done to create flourishing digital communities
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