Digital connectivity is key to creating global success for Northern Powerhouse

According to a panel of technology experts speaking at a conference in Manchester, the Northern Powerhouse will only be able to compete on an international level if significant investment to improve the region’s infrastructure is secured.

“In light of Brexit it is more important than ever we improve not just the way we connect physically in the UK, but how we can connect digitally to the wider world,” said Mark Collins, director of strategy at CityFibre. “Digital investment can also be delivered far quicker than HS2 or a new tunnel and it costs significantly less. To put fibre optic connections in every premises in the UK, both business and home, it would cost £15bn. In my view this is a far better investment than spending £50bn on HS2.”

Roy Grant, head of super connected cities, City of York Council agreed digital connectivity was a “key part of the jigsaw” but admitted it was “not the only piece”. While Joanne Thompson, chief executive officer at Penrillian, said it was vital to ensure digital investment ran alongside, and was delivered at the same time as an improved transport system.

Currently the UK lags behind globally with only 2% of GDP spent on digital infrastructure, while other nations spend between 6 and 8%.

Collins explained: “Spain has 83% of all of its premises connected to end-to-end pure fibre-optic connectivity – it is future proof. In comparison the UK has 3%. So it is vital we catch up and the Northern Powerhouse has a real opportunity to take the lead by supporting and embracing infrastructure projects. If we continue investing in the North it has the ability to leapfrog above other parts of the UK.”

The panel recognised that digital infrastructure historically received the majority of its funding from the private and commercial sector, but that there was a big part the Government could play in helping encourage investment.

Collins added: “The Government committed £1.5bn of funding in the Autumn Statement to encourage private sector investment in the area and there is a real opportunity for Northern Powerhouse to consider how they might take advantage of that funding and encourage a greater degree of investment from the private sector.”

And according to the panel it is not just the responsibility of the big players like BT and Virgin to invest in the sector. To create the level of investment required to catch up with the UK’s international counterparts there has to be a competitive edge in the market. It is the smaller incumbents that could be key to growing the future of the digital economy in the North.

In terms of the Northern Powerhouse’s current digital strategy, the experts all agreed that there was still no clear plan in place and a Northern digital task force was needed to drive the region’s vision forward.

Kirsty Styles, head of talent and skills at Tech North, who will host a summit on the subject in April, is developing an evidence-based set of asks to take to Government, as she believes the strategy set out in the current Northern Powerhouse schools strategy is “wrong and not what we as a region would prioritise.”