Digital towns could close north-south divide, claims O2

The UK economy could be boosted by £1.5bn by 2020 if local authorities and towns were given access to improved digital infrastructure, according to a new report.

The report, Rebalancing Britain: Inspiring thriving Digital Communities, published by mobile operator O2, said enhanced digital infrastructure could transform towns outside of London and the South East as well and playing a large part in the government’s much-touted “Northern Powerhouse”.

The report is based on a pilot carried out with St. Helens Council between October and December last year. Technology was used to improve productivity levels in local businesses, develop skills and improve connectivity.

The report claimed the pilot could add an extra £46.3 million to the St Helens economy by 2020, around 10 percentage points of growth on the area’s current economic forecasts.

Due to the improved infrastructure and increased digital engagement in the town, St Helens moved 15 percentage points (17 places) up the Digital High Streets Index, originally created in conjunction with the Department of Communities and Local Government in March 2015.

The report said that by replicating the pilot in just eight towns in the North of England could boost the region’s economy by an additional £410m by 2020, helping to close the growing gap with the South.

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Adoption of the measures in as few as six towns in the Midlands could inject an additional £351m by 2020, with the potential to kick-start the Chancellor’s proposed Midlands Engine, it claimed.

It added that going digital should be a “key pillar in City Devolution plans. Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield are already signed up to new devolution deals; but these cities will still struggle to compete effectively unless they embed digital at the heart of their investment plans”, said the report.

Mike Palin, Chief Executive of St Helens Council said: “This is a borough that played a key role in the industrial revolution. And 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 helping to point the way forward for northern town and cities like ours, we believe St Helens has helped to shape a new digital landscape that will help to rebalance the UK economy.”

Colin Marrs

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