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Level-up Digital Connectivity and Skills to Secure the Right New Deal for North Wales

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Written By:

Neil Sturmey

Grant Thornton

 


Whether a New Deal, a green deal or the prospect of Brexit No Deal, the ‘D’ word has already come to dominate this year.

Recently the focus was squarely on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s summer statement and the £3bn stimulus package to support the push for carbon zero – along with what some have called a Meal Deal.

In the preceding weeks, the prime minister made no secret of the fact he was inspired by former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, in choosing construction and infrastructure projects to drive the UK’s economic recovery from coronavirus.

Given the seismic changes we’ve all endured since the turn of the year, you could be forgiven for forgetting the Growth Deal signed by the UK Government, Welsh Government and the North Wales Economic Ambition Board last November.

Investment to the tune of £240m is expected to drive economic benefit worth more than £1bn to North Wales. There are some overlaps with the strategic priorities outlined in the summer statement: low carbon and sustainable energy projects, targeted transport links, and digital skills and connectivity to name a few.

It’s the latter two of these which businesses and both governments should double-down on to secure the right kind of economic recovery for North Wales post-coronavirus. A major part of Roosevelt’s new deal in the 30s was the rollout of electricity to the American countryside. At the time, only around three per cent of rural homes had access to electricity.

Fast-forward almost a century and Wales is presented with a similar infrastructure opportunity; the provision of full-fibre across the country. Albeit, a key difference now is that digital skills have to be hugely improved at the same time as the infrastructure – one without the other will not work. To date, only £34m of the proposed Growth Deal has been earmarked to boost digital connectivity, a sum that has been widely identified by informed campaigners in North Wales as insufficient.

The case for full-fibre rollout has surely never been stronger. A report in January from the Centre for Economics & Business Research calculated that the Welsh economy would receive a boost worth almost £2bn and around 20,000 people could be brought back into the workforce by better access to the internet.

We should consider that this estimate was pre-coronavirus.

The pandemic has ushered in new ways of working and learning remotely, and a welcome shift in attitudes to both. These trends will not vanish completely as the UK moves into a new normal and there is the real potential for that economic and job creation boost to be multiplied.

North Wales – and any rural or coastal area across the country – is now presented with a watershed moment to foster growth in new future-proof industries which depend on digital technology and connectivity.

With Wales set to receive additional funds allocated through the Barnett formula following chancellor Sunak’s summer statement, I would call on the Welsh Government to bolster the planned investment in fibre, alongside digital skills.

While support for the region’s important visitor economy is welcome, it’s debatable whether temporary VAT cuts and meal giveaways will be sufficient in themselves. New agile jobs must be made available. These allow work to take place across the whole area, not just in larger towns or offices. The leisure sector will undoubtedly remain vital for North Wales given its natural assets, but now may be the time to reduce our reliance on it.

Investing in both digital skills and connectivity can secure the right new deal for North Wales; supporting the creation of more prosperous, inclusive and resilient places, where communities can thrive because of the entrepreneurial spirit and economic output of people living within them, not just those visiting.