Britain's £1.5 billion digital towns opportunity

Britain's £1.5 billion digital towns opportunity

Posted: Wed 30th Mar 2016

Britain's economy could be boosted to the tune of £1.5 billion if 30 towns were given access to better digital infrastructure and technology, a new report has concluded.

According to the study by O2, the economic benefits could be achieved by 2020 if technology investments were made to improve the lives of businesses and individuals.

The report is based on O2's Digital Communities pilot in partnership with St Helens Council between October and December 2015 which used technology to tackle poor productivity levels among local businesses, address digital skills shortages and improve access to connectivity.

What the scheme involved

The scheme transformed a disused shop into a digital hub in St Helens town centre which hosted events and workshops for business owners. Free Wi-Fi hotspots were also set up and used by more than 5,000 people and grants were given to young people to turn digital ideas into reality.

Due to the improved infrastructure and increased digital engagement in the town, St Helens moved 15 percentage points and 17 places up the Department of Communities and Local Government's Digital High Streets Index.

O2 predicted that if the pilot continued, an additional £46.3 million would be injected into the St Helens economy by 2020, representing 10% additional growth compared with current economic trajectory for the town over that period.

Driving growth

Growth would be driven through factors including new jobs, enhanced workforce productivity and supply chain multiplier effects.

O2 said that if the pilot was replicated in eight towns in the North of England, the region's economy would be boosted by an additional £410 million. Similarly, if the measures were adopted in six towns in the Midlands, an extra £351 million would be achieved.

The report made several recommendations including the following:

  • Every local authority must have a digital strategy. With smartphone ownership doubling in the last five years, local authorities which fail to integrate mobile into their organisational strategies will miss a huge opportunity to engage local citizens.

  • Make digital a key pillar in City Devolution deals. Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield are already signed up to new devolution deals. but these cities will still struggle to compete effectively unless they embed digital at the heart of their investment plans.

  • Appoint digital champions to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Each LEP needs to have a dedicated digital expert to ensure that local authorities, businesses and others stakeholders are not neglecting the critical infrastructure and skills requirements which enable the digital economy to flourish.

  • Prioritise the development of digital infrastructure. Without informed decision-making by local authorities and reform of the planning and Electronic Communications Code, coverage and capacity difficulties will become more common place and the national and local digital economy will suffer.

Ben Dowd, O2's business director, said:

"This report is a stark reminder that digital plays a crucial role in delivering future economic growth and rebalancing the chronic North-South economic divide currently gripping our economy. Through our Digital Communities pilot we've seen first-hand the benefits that relatively simple connectivity, such as new wifi hotspots and smartphones, can bring to an entire town.

"Now it's time to ensure that no matter where you live or run your business, you can make the most of digital technology and its benefits."

Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, added:

"Whatever the size of the business, it's clear that the opportunity posed by the digital economy is huge and growing all the time. Yet we often see that many time-poor start-ups and small businesses are failing to make the most of this opportunity due to lack of resource and, more often than not, skills.

"We know through working with O2 on the Digital Communities pilot that, in actual fact, even the quickest and simplest steps, like using a smartphone or tablet to work on-the-go, or creating a social media profile, can make a huge difference. There's a real potential for more pilots just like this to help businesses across the country grow, and I'm excited to see this become a reality."

Enterprise Nation has helped thousands of people start and grow their businesses. Led by founder, Emma Jones CBE, Enterprise Nation connects you to the resources and expertise to help you succeed.

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