It has been called everything from ‘crackpot’ to ‘radical and necessary’, but whichever side of the debate you fall on, Labour’s plan to nationalise broadband and give it away for free has got people talking. As far as small businesses are concerned, the fact the conversation about digital as a utility has entered the public domain is only a good thing. We do not have to agree on an idea for the discussion of it to be beneficial to moving the topic forward.
While London is one of the world’s most connected cities, in many of our rural towns and villages, connectivity infrastructure is often quite far behind the UK capital. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found last year that average broadband speeds in rural areas are 19 Mbit/s slower than in urban areas. That is – if there is even a connection at all. Whereas superfast broadband is almost universal in urban areas (98 per cent), in the most sparsely populated parts of the country, up to 35 per cent of properties do not have access to decent broadband service. How can we expect rural businesses to thrive without this essential utility in place?
This is not just about rural verses urban though. The policy raises an issue much more fundamental than that: whether we see digital connectivity as fundamental to the future of a vibrant enterprise landscape in the UK. Where small businesses need the internet to access finance, realise productivity gains and export around the world, if we as a country want them to do so for our own wider benefit, are we obliged to give them the tools to enable it?
No doubt, we as a nation thrive when small businesses thrive. From community driven benefits to trillions of income, to employment of over 17 million people and innovation at the grass roots, small businesses drive the economy, the culture and the lifestyle of the UK. Should we not give some thought and investment to how they do it?
For these reasons I welcome the discussion Labour’s plan has sparked – despite questions over feasibility – because connectivity and digital opportunities is a subject close to the hearts of many of the UK’s 5.8 million small businesses. Indeed as millions of the nation’s small businesses celebrate Small Business Saturday next week on the 7th December, they will do so selling online, promoting on social media, managing their stock via cloud computing, and much, much more.
What underpins this proposal is an acknowledgement that you need connectivity for modern life. Whether you are applying for jobs (or recruiting), managing your money, or running a small business – necessary life admin has been increasingly digitised. The internet is a utility we cannot live without.
The question, then, is whether you see broadband as a utility like water or gas, which we pay for individually – or whether you see it as a utility like our roads, which are paid for collectively through taxes. It’s not a question I have the answer to, but regardless, it is a welcome debate to be having.
Small businesses employ almost half of the British workforce, and they account for more than half of our entire private sector turnover – over £2tn. It is only right that the main issues affecting them are part of the conversation this election, and we are not trapped in a Brexit bubble.
As a country, we have to look beyond the end of January, just as small businesses have had to look beyond missed Brexit deadlines and carry on as normal. Original ideas for the future are the prescription this election needs to recover wider political discourse.
If we are looking to ‘future proof’ our economy and our communities, we need to ensure that everyone is living in the digital age. Boosting productivity, supporting our high streets, regenerating ‘forgotten’ towns are all complex issues, but if we don’t even talk about them, if we just say ‘it’s too hard’, ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘it’s too expensive’ – how can we solve them?
Small businesses keep communities and economies moving, providing jobs and services for those who need them most. In return, they deserve to be at the heart of the conversation, and the connectivity that they need to thrive must be part of that.
Michelle Ovens is director of Small Business Saturday