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The economy could be boosted by £1.5bn over the next four years if just 30 towns across the UK are given access to better digital infrastructure and technology. This is according to the report Rebalancing Britain: Inspiring thriving digital communities, released by mobile operator O2.
The report claimed that proper use of technology and better attention to digital infrastructure could “transform” towns outside of London and south-east England and rebalance the north-south divide.
The report was compiled following a pilot Digital Communities project conducted in St Helens in Merseyside, which set out to tackle poor productivity levels among local businesses, address skills shortages and improve connectivity provision.
It found that the pilot measures could inject almost £50m to the local economy in St Helens by 2020, representing additional growth of 10% compared with current forecasts.
This would come through a combination of job creation, productivity and supply chain multiplier effects. The wholesale and retail sectors, along with business support and professional services, would be the biggest beneficiaries.
“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,” said O2 business director Ben Dowd.
“Through our Digital Communities pilot, we’ve seen first-hand the benefits that relatively simple connectivity – such as wi-fi hotspots and smartphones – can bring to an entire town.”
St Helens council chief executive Mike Palin added: “This is a borough that played a key role in the industrial revolution. Now we feel we’re very much at the forefront of a new, digital revolution by showing just what’s possible – and the benefits that connectivity can bring.
“By pointing the way forward for northern towns and cities like ours, we believe St Helens has helped to shape a digital landscape that will rebalance the UK economy.”
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The pilot scheme, which ran between October and December 2015, saw eight small “analogue” businesses receive free consultations and technology refreshes.
It also included digital health checks for small businesses; workshops that attracted more than 1,200 people to sessions exploring digital careers, social media best practice, online safety and coding for children; free Wi-Fi hotspots in the town centre and at a local college; and the award of 30 grants – part funded by the St Helens Chamber of Commerce – to kickstart young entrepreneurs.
Over the course of the pilot, St Helens moved 17 places up the Department of Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG’s) Digital High Streets Index.
Beyond St Helens, O2 claimed that replicating the pilot alone in eight towns in the north of England could boost the regional economy by £410m by the end of the decade.
The operator set out a blueprint for businesses, central government and local authorities to act on its findings. It said every local authority must begin to integrate mobile into their organisational strategies to engage citizens.
It also added that digital must become a key pillar in city devolution deals, such as those already set up in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield.
O2 called for the development of broadband and network infrastructure to be prioritised, otherwise capacity crunches would become more common and the economy would suffer.
The 30 towns identified as viable locations to replicate the experience of St Helens are Ayr, Basingstoke, Bedford, Carmarthen, Chelmsford, Darlington, Derry-Londonderry, Gloucester, Grimsby, Halifax, Hartlepool, Ipswich, Lancaster, Larne, Livingston, Loughborough, Maidstone, Mansfield, Newport, Newry, Northampton, Oldham, Perth, Stirling, Swindon, Telford, Wakefield, West Bromwich, Worcester and Wrexham.