At the start of a new parliamentary term, efforts to freshen up a Government’s ‘mission’ can take many forms. Personnel who came through an election with credit can become ministers or a new landmark policy can be pursued to signal a change in thinking. Another option is to change ministerial portfolios themselves. While this can be a simple task of unjumbling previously disparate priorities, it can also act as a means of focusing minds on certain issues.
Pairing the economic element of the rural affairs brief and connectivity after the last Scottish Parliament elections has acted as such a catalyst. The logic is obvious. Economic development in rural areas is dependent on ensuring they are physically and digitally connected. A failure to ensure this can see communities wither on the vine. A trend develops of younger workers leaving for better opportunities in urban areas creating a constant cycle in which these communities struggle to refresh and renew.
But remote working from some of the most beautiful locations in Scotland is now a 30mps internet connection away. A recent report by Scotland’s Rural College explained the economic benefits which could be unlocked by increasing digital connectivity in these areas. For a country in which 94% of its landmass is classed as rural, future proofing these areas economically through increased connectivity is the kind of policy challenge which demands a focused brief.
Many of these challenges and opportunities have also been highlighted by the recent debate about bank branch closures. What has been acknowledged is the old ways of a physical bank, with a friendly clerk of 20-years standing, is now becoming a thing of the past. The supposedly more dynamic digital banking is the future. Without the promised internet connectivity for these areas, this will be a new age in name only.
Combining these two elements makes policy sense and has generated interesting Government initiatives. The proposals for a South of Scotland Enterprise Agency came with the near universal support of MSPs who want to replicate the success of Highlands & Islands Enterprise. When the plan for this agency was published, there was an emphasis on its potential to transform the region’s physical and digital connectivity. This reflected the need for new economic ventures in the region to be accessible.
If joining the dots between connectivity and economic success is recognised in rural initiatives, the same can be said for connectivity-focused policies. The Reaching 100% (R100) programme is targeting full access for all premises to superfast internet speeds by 2021. The programme is designed on the assumption of a digital divide between rural and urban areas. Therefore, it follows an ‘outside-in’ approach which means rural localities have their connections installed before contractors move towards cities. Both the northern and southern regional sections of the procurement contracts will be backed with extra funding, reflecting the greater need of these areas to have minimum levels of internet connectivity delivered.
Further initiatives are likely to emerge from the Government and others. Today’s meeting of the National Economic Forum in Dumfries is focused on “driving forward the rural economy”. Attendees will discuss the criss-cross of elements which hold back rural areas, but there will also be a section devoted to “digital opportunities”. Meanwhile, the Scottish Council for Development & Industry has announced the launch of a new Rural Commission. Chaired by Chris Gaffney, it is expected to look at issues for businesses of all sizes in rural areas including digital connectivity. Its promise to publish recommendations throughout the Commission’s lifetime raises the possibility of regular interventions from one of the foremost business representative organisations on how one of the Government’s key aims can be achieved.
The tying of the rural economy to connectivity was a thoughtful move by the Scottish Government. It is an opportunity to pursue significant policies that can produce genuine change for rural communities. The challenges facing these communities’ will not be easily overcome but giving them the ability to adapt to changes in the way we work and live makes success more likely.
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