Let’s set aside the digital divide in the countryside

Lord Holmes

Written by Chris Holmes, Baron Holmes of Richmond MBE

Our farmers have been on the front line throughout the ongoing Covid crisis.  They and every one of our essential services heroes deserve our thanks and are owed an enduring debt of gratitude which we should all covenant to.

One service that we can do in return for all of those in our rural economy is push for high levels of broadband connectivity, capacity and reliability and the digital skills to operate effectively online.

The Agriculture Bill, going through Parliament presently, offers the opportunity to throw a sharp spotlight on this countryside digital divide.

The NFU annual connectivity survey for 2019 sets it clearly:

  • In 2015 16% of respondents reported having no indoor signal. This has only minorly improved by 2019 with 15% reporting having no indoor signal.
  • Outdoor locations with a reliable service have increased, but slowly. There has only been a 3% increase in total outdoor coverage since 2015, yet a 2% increase in respondents with no coverage at all.
  • 70% of respondents with smartphones in 2015 had access to 4G, in comparison to 84% in 2019.
  • In 2019, 36% of respondents felt that they had access to sufficient broadband speeds for their businesses an improvement on 23% in 2015 but still a significant minority.
  • In 2015, 58 % of respondents had download speeds of 2 Mbps or less, which has fallen to 30% in 4% of respondents had access to superfast download speeds in 2015. By 2019, this ha d risen to 17%.

If not quite a Rake’s progress, it’s certainly not the level of connectivity required if we are to enable and empower all those in rural settings to transact, relate, build business and release all the latent potential, currently constrained, for want of decent broadband.

Farmers have told me that, for example, they have to go to McDonald’s to get online.  While Macdonald’s marketing tells us that all their produce comes from British and Irish farms there is a certain circularity here. But it can’t be that this is a must rather than a choice.

Similarly, when it comes to something as private as paying tax, farmers and other business folk in rural settings have been told to go and do it at the library.  A quiet place, for sure, but private and where you would choose to lay out your finances?

Earlier this year the Government’s  response to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee report “An Update on Rural Connectivity” said they “intend to commit £5 billion” and offered “in-principle support for a shared rural network” 

The agriculture bill offers the opportunity to convert that “in principle” to practical reality.

 It is for these reasons and more that I have put down amendment 157 to address this countryside constraint:

Chapter 3 – other financial support after EU exit
Clause 16 – Support for rural development
  1. The Secretary of State may by regulations modify the Rural Development Regulation and retained direct EU legislation made under that Regulation, as it has effect in relation to England, for or in connection with—

(a)extending the period to which the core contribution relates;

(b)amending the amount of the core contribution;

(c)changing the currency in which the core contribution is expressed;

(d)amending Annex 1 of the Regulation (support for rural development).

AMENDMENT 157 WOULD insert here —

“( ) amending Annex IV of the Regulation (indicative list) to cover broadband connectivity and digital literacy.”

This amendment would transform the lives of those who do so much to keep us fed, they have been on the front line during the Covid crisis.  It is our turn now, to demonstrate that we are all in this together and to enable those living and working in our rural communities to get the internet access they have a right to and the necessary skills to thrive online.  I urge the Government to look seriously at this amendment, it would have social, psychological and economic benefits. 

I believe that, if we can pass this amendment, we will firmly enable and  empower our farmers, food and plant producers to continue to do what they do best, world class production, benefited through world class broadband provision and the ability to have the confidence on line matching that which they ably demonstrate in every other aspect of their  business’.

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