Last week, TalkTalk joined leading figures from business, national and regional government at the Northern Powerhouse Education, Employment and Skills Summit, and the same difficult question was on everyone’s lips: as attention turns to the economic fallout of the pandemic, how do we stop COVID-19 entrenching regional inequalities and how do we create and protect jobs in the North?
As businesses reopen and lockdown eases, it is clear the way we work is still changing. Look at the half-empty commuter train carriages or station car parks in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. For many, the spare room, the kitchen table, or the sitting room will continue to be the new office for some time yet.
Sadly, this isn’t going to be the only change to the world of work brought on by COVID-19. As a business based in Salford we have seen in our local area the impact on those around us. Like many businesses, we have donated time and resources to local food banks to help some of those in greatest need- and now we are looking to the future recovery.
We know there are huge challenges, but also believe that with the right reboot and rebuild strategy in place, some of the worst effects of these challenges could be mitigated or even turned into opportunities.
Consider the benefits that could be delivered if the priority for economic recovery in the North was focussed on the growth sector of digital, or the transformation that could occur by focussing the next phase on young people and retraining, so that the skills gaps in digital can be filled and the vast potential of this sector met.
Before the crisis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the first economic priority of his government was “levelling up” the North- a commitment that we are fully behind. As we try to rebuild, we need a reaffirmed commitment that this area will not be left behind again. Prioritising digital in the North would be a key way to demonstrate this commitment.
Moreover, as examples pour in from across Europe of how a decentralised approach to the current crisis has helped response to it, the old reliance on London and the South East must be consigned to history with this pandemic, and we need to see steps taken to promote local accountability and decision-making, and to unlock local economic growth.
In the new world of work, this economic growth cannot be unleashed without a focus on digital connectivity. Domestic broadband is bearing the strain of this new home-working connectivity. It is now an urgent priority for government to ensure millions of homeworkers in the North have the tools they need to do their jobs.
Fast, full fibre connections are no longer a luxury – they are a passport to society. Workers without access to high-speed internet will be even more marginalised in a post-COVID world that is moving increasingly online.
Levelling up means speeding up when it comes to UK connectivity. Compared to other European countries, which enjoy full fibre coverage of 70% – 80%, the UK’s 14% full fibre coverage is simply not acceptable.
What’s more – within the UK, there are vast regional disparities compounded by rural and urban divides. Of the top 10 cities with the highest ultrafast penetration rates just three – Wigan, Derby and Middlesbrough – are in the North of England. Of those with the lowest rates, 6 out of 10 are in the North, while all of the top 5 are in the South East.
Cities stand to benefit from private investment in new networks – but it’s not so clear how and when towns and villages across the North will get connected. As we look to live with and move beyond COVID, this digital divide cannot be allowed to continue.
The pandemic has already hit people from disadvantaged backgrounds hardest, and this gap will widen further if these communities are overlooked in the regrowth plan. The Government must therefore invest in broadband and to ensure that better connections are both available and affordable across the country as a key part of the economic rebuild.
Last week’s conference was a great way to start these important conversations and TalkTalk is committed to playing our role in this work. It’s now vital these conversations continue, that the argument for digital-led recovery is made, and that the North is not forgotten as we seek to reboot and rebuild.
By Lucy Thomas, Corporate Affairs Director, TalkTalk