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West Midlands cities must tackle ‘digital divides’ to compete

West Midlands cities must tackle ‘digital divides’ to compete

🕔12.Jul 2018

Many UK cities are falling behind global counterparts in capitalising on the social and economic opportunities offered by digital technology. They need more powers and resources from Government to address digital divides – but also need to make better use of existing technology to transform public services, reports Kevin Johnson.

So says a report published today by the think tank Centre for Cities (sponsored by O2). It examines how digital technology – in terms of both fixed and mobile connections – is transforming urban Britain, and the steps national and local leaders can take to ensure people and places across the country benefit.

However, the report also warns that many cities are not taking full advantage of existing digital connections, and the benefits it could offer to residents and businesses – as well as the potential it has to improve public services.

It highlights significant digital divides in West Midlands cities, as illustrated by the gap between availability of superfast broadband and take-up among households – with both Birmingham and Coventry home to bigger take-up gaps than the UK average.

The report argues that addressing these gaps will be crucial for cities to make the most of current connections, and forthcoming developments such as the planned rollout of full fibre and 5G technology in the coming years.

The report sets out a number of recommendations on how national and local leaders can support cities to take full advantage of existing digital connections, and to successfully deliver new and improved digital infrastructure in the coming years.

The Government should deliver on its promise to devolve responsibility for the Adult Skills Budget to cities. This would give places more resources to help residents acquire the digital skills needed to take advantage of jobs resulting from digital connectivity. It will also ensure that firms can access the workers they need to capitalise on these developments.

Cities should embrace the opportunities that existing digital technology offers to better manage services. For example, Salford City Council has adopted a ‘digital first’ customer strategy, making it easier for residents to interact with the council on public services, and upskilling staff to use digital technology. Other cities should also consider how they can use digital connections to innovate and transform public services.

The Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework should require all new housing developments to include provision of high quality digital infrastructure – mobile and fixed. This will reduce disruptions, costs and delays to the delivery of new digital connections. Cities should also integrate plans for full fibre and 5G into future public realm developments.

National leaders should review the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) after 12 months, to ensure it does not deter investment in digital infrastructure. The ECC was introduced by the Government last year to cut costs and delays in new digital infrastructure, but has reduced cooperation between landowners and mobile operators. The Government should ensure these issues do not hamper ongoing delivery of 4G and rollout of 5G in UK cities.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has made increasing availability and take up of digital connectivity a key theme of his mayoralty. The WMCA’s Digital Board, chaired by David Maclean, is developing a digital strategy to improve skills and infrastructure, with the ultimate aim of making the West Midlands a globally recognised hub for digital. It is working to co-ordinate disparate strands to improve digital skills, infrastructure and embed greater use of digital technology within business and local government.

The Mayor is in the process of appointing a Chief Digital Officer, whose primary task will be to deliver greater digital infrastructure, as well as the skills and capacity people, businesses and local government need to take advantage of this technology.

Commenting on the report findings, Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, said:

UK has invested significantly in becoming a global leader for digital infrastructure, but action is needed to ensure more people and businesses in cities across the Midlands benefit from this technology.

Part of the problem is that cities need more powers and resources to address digital skills gaps in their communities. However, the onus is also on cities to learn from the innovations that some places are already pioneering, in using existing technology to transform public

We also need a concerted effort from national and local leaders to ensure cities can provide the best possible built environment to deliver new digital infrastructure in the coming years, such as the rollout of full fibre and

Other cities and countries across the world have ambitious plans to capitalise on digital technology – cities in the Midlands must do the same to compete with global counterparts as we leave the

McManus, Chief Operating Officer at O2, said:

5G will boost productivity and economic growth, so the government rightly wants the UK to be a leader and early adopter of this technology. If that ambition is to be fulfilled, major investment is needed to put in place additional digital infrastructure.

National government needs to ensure that planning policy and related regulations support the provision of digital infrastructure as much as possible and do not hold back the rollout of 5G. Similarly, cities and civic leaders need to work with the mobile networks to enable the investment in infrastructure that will deliver 5G to businesses and consumers.

This report correctly identifies that a collective and collaborative effort is required to convert the potential to reality and includes some practical steps that national and local policy makers can take to ensure the UK is indeed a leader in 5G. Government and cities must be bold in meeting the need to support the delivery of 5G technology as speedily and effectively as possible.

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