For centuries, politicians of all stripes have attempted to bridge the north-south divide in the British economy. Even though London and the south-east of England are home to roughly one-third of the UK’s population, the region represents upward of 45% of the country’s economy and receives the lion’s share of public investment. That economic imbalance between north and south is also reflected in the UK’s tech industry, too, with more than half of equity deals in the sector since 2011 involving firms based in London.
It’s a situation the current government has pledged to change, repeating its commitment to levelling up the UK’s tech sector outside the Home Counties in its most recent Digital Strategy. That challenge remains immense, with northern towns and cities still lagging behind their southern contemporaries in the availability of digital skills, infrastructure and technology investment. However, it’s not an insurmountable one. Indeed, new data from industry body techUK’s latest Local Digital Capital Index reveals that the divide between north and south is slowly being closed by tech hubs emerging in cities far beyond the capital.
“There is a north-south and urban-rural divide, yes, but there’s also great practice in other parts of the country,” explains Matt Robinson, head of nations and regions at techUK.
One of these examples can be found in Sunderland. A port city traditionally more associated with shipbuilding than start-ups, it’s a place that most people would not instinctively associate with emerging technologies. That began to change last October, when the City Council awarded a 20-year strategic partnership with BAI Communications to “design, build and operate next-generation digital infrastructure.” Set to include a private 5G small cell network, these plans are part of the city’s ambitions to become a global smart city, building on the momentum of its winning UK Smart City of the Year accolade back in 2020.
Some of the immediate beneficiaries of Sunderland’s Smart City plans to deliver superfast internet connectivity include primary schools, tower block community rooms, and the city centre located on the city’s high street, according to a case study published by the local council. By bringing 5G internet connectivity to Sunderland, local leaders aim to enable more children and adults to get online faster with more reliable connections. This would translate into “greater learning opportunities for all, including improved access to universal credits online, as well as via partners such as Gentoo, where adults can also access digital skills training and equipment in their community rooms to boost confidence and knowledge.”
Robinson shared that in techUK’s consultations with Sunderland, local authorities “took a long look at what they had to do to be competitive, how they could attract businesses, or how to work with existing businesses and make a compelling offer”. He added that these discussions with local businesses turned into long-term investments which are setting the foundations for businesses to thrive in the area. But importantly, Sunderland’s authorities decided that locals know best when it comes to designing solutions for their community.
“What they didn’t do was dictate it all from the centre,” he says. “They sought to provide partnerships, collaboration and support whenever that was needed to let people crack on and we’re really keen to try and encourage that as well.”
Digital upskilling in Cottonopolis
Further down the A19 is another story of a northern city strengthening its local digital capital. In a bid to drive forward digital skills adoption in Manchester, the city’s Metropolitan University has emerged as a critical pipeline for upskilling the city’s workforce through apprenticeships and courses in partnership with local businesses and the wider tech industry. To that end, the university recently opened a School of Digital Arts, which offers apprenticeships in a range of highly sought-after digital skills such as user experience (UX), 3D modelling, branding and mobile-first design.
According to the university, these apprenticeships have seen an increase in the number of women applying for such courses, with 34% of the university’s STEM-related apprentices being women, compared to the national undergraduate average of 22% based on statistics published by the Office for Students. Eamonn O’Brien, the Labour leader of the Bury Metropolitan Borough Council in Greater Manchester, believes that the university's apprenticeship programme has been instrumental in encouraging people to improve their digital skills in today’s economy.
“Our big focus now is about digital skills at all levels,” he says. “We’re making sure that people not only have access to the fundamentals of the digital world, but also the opportunities for new jobs.”
He added that Greater Manchester’s digital boot camp, which retrains and upskills residents currently working or looking for work, has helped 500 residents into new digital roles. “That’s just one example of what we’ve done in the last couple of years to really target the people who need it and to support businesses to upskill,” he says. “It’s been a success so far and it’s now being rolled out nationally.”
Despite Manchester’s progress in digital capital, O’Brien points out that digital exclusion is still a key issue in many communities across the country. “We’ve got to address that,” he says, “because if you’re not digitally connected, you’re excluded from so many amazing opportunities and ways in which you can improve your life.”
Spreading digital capital beyond industry
There is still much to be done. One of the key pillars of boosting local digital capital is the underlying infrastructure that enables communities to have access to high internet speeds, according to the techUK report. In March last year, the government launched a £5bn government infrastructure project called “Project Gigabit” aimed at plugging the gap, but data compiled by techUK reveals that gigabit coverage remains woefully inadequate.
At the time, former prime minister Boris Johnson described the project as a “rocket boost that we need to get lightning-fast broadband to all areas of the country.” He added that the government’s levelling up agenda was closely tied to the benefits of improving digital infrastructure across the country, saying the “broadband revolution will fire up people’s businesses and homes, and the vital public services that we all rely on, so we can continue to level up and build back better from this pandemic.”
Areas like London, West Central Scotland and the West Midlands have notably higher rates of gigabit coverage compared to more rural areas in Cumbria, Cornwall, and Lincolnshire. Just 6% of properties in Cumbria have gigabit broadband, for example, while this figure is slightly higher in Lincolnshire at 9% and 15% in the Highlands and Islands. “You have real differences in geography, topography, and the kinds of communities and businesses when you compare digital infrastructure in urban to rural areas,” Robinson explains.
Beyond business, however, the lack of high-speed internet connectivity has serious consequences for learning, saying that MPs in rural constituencies have raised concerns about the lack of connectivity in schools with large catchment areas, for example. “If you don’t have digital connectivity, the kids in school can’t get online and teachers don’t have the infrastructure to download resources, teach lessons through the pandemic and make sure they’re delivering for kids,” Robinson argues. “That is a real issue and there’s the risk of cutting off whole communities there.”
He adds that the priorities of Project Gigabit need to be broken down to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach and that Rishi Sunak’s new government needs to “double down” on improving digital skills across the country and making sure digital infrastructure is fit for purpose in different areas. “It isn’t about just chasing the numbers, it’s about thinking about the communities that we can take with us,” says Robinson.
Homepage image of Manchester's Media City, home to an array of growing tech companies. Photo by SAKhanPhotography/Shutterstock.