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Rural group doubts claim of jobs boost from superfast broadband

Thursday, January 8th 2015 by Hannah Langston

A government report suggesting productivity will grow faster in the countryside than urban areas over the next decade has been described as “very optimistic” by an association of rural councils.

The report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) predicts that increased connectivity, such as superfast broadband and improved mobile coverage, will contribute to a 6% boost in rural employment – or more than 300,000 jobs.

However, Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) told Cable.co.uk they would “urge caution” on the amount of additional productivity this could bring to rural areas.

“Whilst more people are working from home this could be due to the lack of higher quality jobs in urban areas. As the economy grows we could see a return to more mainstream employment,” said ACRE’s head of insight, Nick Chase.

“The figure of more than 300,000 jobs would seem very optimistic given there would also be jobs created in urban areas – probably more than in rural over this time period – and this would almost cut the current unemployment figure in half. A statistic that seems very difficult to imagine in only 10 years.”

According to Mr Chase: “it will take considerable investment beyond just infrastructure to achieve the sort of figures the government are quoting”.

“Broadband into rural areas is crucial but we are not seeing the level of connectivity that the government is suggesting is happening – there are many not-spots and even with mobile connections not everyone will be able to afford to be connected,” he added.

The DEFRA analysis also found that rural residents are more likely to run their own businesses than people in urban areas, despite only around 18% of people living in rural areas.

Broadband plans "lack ambition"

The Federation of Small Businesses agreed with DEFRA that faster broadband will help boost rural productivity but echoed ACRE’s doubts over the government’s ability to provide adequate coverage to rural homes.

Chairman John Allan said: “We know that just 16% of rural small businesses currently have access to superfast broadband. Plans for the further rollout of superfast broadband lack ambition and urgency.

“We want to see much more done to improve rural broadband networks, specifically more done to connect businesses as well as residential customers.”

The Countryside Alliance described the government’s predicted 6% increase in employment as a “bold claim” but added “there is no reason why levels of productivity should be any lower in rural areas than in towns”.

A spokesperson said: “Improved broadband access and mobile phone reception are vital for those who live and work in the countryside and steps forward in this sphere coupled with improved transport routes will inevitably lead to rural firms being more competitive.

“There has been a digital divide between urban and rural areas for too long, with those living in country areas getting a far poorer service than their town-dwelling counterparts”.

Commenting on the DEFRA report, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said: “Improved infrastructure is a great driver of change and our investment in broadband and transport links, together with improved mobile phone signals, is unlocking the huge potential for growth in the countryside where entrepreneurial activity is outstripping many parts of the UK.

“Whether you’re in a cottage in Cornwall or a small business in one of our great national parks, you are better connected now than ever before – ultimately that means greater opportunities, more jobs and improved wages and a better future.”

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