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Focus on SME broadband to build Northern Powerhouse, says report

SMEs in the north of England need a defined government strategy on broadband and skills if they are to flourish, says a thinktank

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the north of England need a more cohesive and strategic approach to enabling broadband connectivity if the government’s ambitions to create a Northern Powerhouse are to come true, according to a report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank.

IPPR identified two main obstacles for SMEs achieving their maximum potential online. First, many still lacked access to a good-quality, high-speed broadband infrastructure, and were not being prioritised in current roll-out plans. Second, many lacked the skills required to make the most of being online, with provision for training still piecemeal.

If neither of these issues were addressed, said the report, the economy in the north would likely remain unbalanced and less productive.

The IPPR called on the government to prioritise superfast broadband roll-out in business parks and enterprise zones. Where appropriate, it suggested, future funding for broadband should be devolved to combined authorities, and local authorities should consider a local version of 2015’s largely successful broadband connection voucher scheme.

It also demanded greater transparency around broadband roll-out, and urged the government to consider making BT publish details of full broadband speeds and coverage at a premises level, with business parks and SME premises prioritised over residential properties, alongside neighbourhood-level information about planned upgrade activity.

Phil Sorsky, international vice-president at broadband hardware supplier CommScope, said he supported the report’s sentiment.

“Successive UK governments have ensured that the country is one of the most competitive environments in the world. To unlock digital growth, the UK government must ensure all areas of the country have access to fibre cabling, enabling superfast connectivity and global performance for businesses, wherever they’re located,” he said.

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“By ensuring that all businesses in the north, regardless of their size, have access to the reliable and seamless connectivity they need to succeed, the government will be one step closer to achieving its goal of creating a Northern Powerhouse,” said Sorsky.

Skills tests

The IPPR also urged the government to make digital support for SMEs a priority for local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and metro mayors in the north of England, as well as continue support for local growth hubs. They suggested five tests that could be used to ensure they were doing the best they could.

These tests would centre on how effectively LEPs prioritise digital skills in their planning, and how this was reflected in the work of the growth hub, whether growth hubs have clearly defined digital skills offers; whether they are making the most of collaboration and knowledge-sharing practice; whether data collected on the availability of local support is being used to create a comprehensive picture of the supply of digital support for SMEs; and whether they are exploring how to meet demand for digital support from SMEs and maximise its benefits.

The IPPR said there was a clear economic benefit to enabling SMEs in all sectors to do more online, but the government would need to release funds to overcome disincentives to private investment and encourage SMEs to invest in digital themselves, particularly in the wake of Brexit.

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