Invest in digital and put North in the fast lane

Having secured a Commons majority for the Government’s agenda and the passing of the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May must have been dreaming that things could only get better. But in a sign of what could be in store for the PM and her minority government, she has lurched straight into a fight over continued austerity and the thorny subject of public sector pay.

It is a bigger issue in the North East than anywhere else in England. Twenty per cent of workers in the region are employed in the public sector, down from 26% in 2010 but still the highest in England. The 1% public sector cap has been brought into particular sharp focus with inflation currently standing at 2.9%.

This issue is not limited to the public sector. Research carried out for Policy North shows that 62% of people in the North East have seen no change, or worse a reduction, in their salary compared to 2014, rising to 63% in the North West and 69% in Yorkshire.

No surprise then that the nature of employment across the country is changing. Our research shows a trend away from traditional full time employment and into self employment and what has become known as the ‘gig economy’ – people freelancing with the likes of Uber and Amazon or using the internet to offer their skills and services around the world. Nationally around 1m people make up the gig economy while 15% are self employed – a 50% rise compared to 1975.

Working practices are changing across the country and the evidence suggests they will continue to do so. As more and more people move out of employment into self-employment and freelance, do we have the infrastructure they need?

The vast majority of people who work for themselves start their enterprise from home. Broadband is a vital tool that brings global customers to people's kitchen tables and in turn helps today's freelancers become tomorrow's entrepreneurs.

Yet parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria rank among the lowest in the UK for broadband speeds and areas in Northumberland fare only a little better.

Every household in the country will have access to broadband speeds of at least 10mbps by 2020 under current plans but already the conversation has moved on to ultra-fast broadband.  

The Government announced a £1bn Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund this week to banish buffering and get rid of slow download speeds. It is exactly what the UK needs and is an opportunity to rebalance the economy northwards to support the growing army of people setting up on their own and starting out in business. 

The project aims to provide homes and businesses with speeds of up to 1gbps, using fibre optics direct to premises.

Policy North has put connectivity at the top of our agenda. Alongside trade and skills, these are the priorities that could transform our economy and pave the way for a truly 'global north'.

Against a backdrop of long-running disputes over pay that look set to continue, working practices in the North are changing faster than many realise. We’d welcome ministers to pilot their vision of an ultra-fast future here in the North East as part of a commitment to building a "Digital North" and give a much needed boost to productivity. Otherwise we risk seeing this investment largely in London and the South, further widening a gap that already exists.

The North East may be at the back of the HS2 queue, but we can still get ahead in the digital fast lane.