Re­mote work­ing shows HS2 is not the an­swer – dig­i­tal in­vest­ment is

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - DAVID RICHARDS David Richards is the CEO and co-founder of WANdisco

It has been six years since Ge­orge Os­borne made his North­ern Pow­er­house speech – promis­ing to cre­ate a bet­ter-con­nected clus­ter of North­ern cities to coun­ter­bal­ance the dom­i­nat­ing eco­nomic power of Lon­don and hail­ing HS2 as “the most im­por­tant in­vest­ment in the north for a cen­tury”.

The am­bi­tion of to­day re­mains un­changed. The Prime Min­is­ter’s “lev­el­ling up” agenda is North­ern Pow­er­house re­branded, a recog­ni­tion that the same mod­ern and glob­alised econ­omy that has pro­pelled Lon­don for­ward has not been equally dis­trib­uted around the coun­try.

HS2 has been a point of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­tention for over a decade. Pre­dicted costs have rock­eted – the lat­est es­ti­mate is a stag­ger­ing £106bn – and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the project has been steadily in de­cline.

First pro­posed in 2009, HS2 is an in­fra­struc­ture project that was de­signed to ad­dress ac­ces­si­bil­ity, con­nec­tiv­ity and was set to un­der­pin a new North­ern econ­omy.

In 2020, where we have all been quick to embrace re­mote work­ing, a multi­bil­lion-pound train line is not the an­swer. Ref­er­ences to ac­ces­si­bil­ity, con­nec­tiv­ity and eco­nomic suc­cess can now only link to dig­i­tal.

HS2 promised to link to­gether the North­ern cities, but it’s hard to see the rail­way as any­thing more than a means to get com­muters from the North into the cap­i­tal faster.

This op­er­ates on en­tirely the wrong premise – now more than ever.

Cities in the North and the Mid­lands should not re­sort to be­com­ing com­muter towns. In­stead, these ar­eas need to be in­vested in, so that they can grow dig­i­tal economies in their own right.

As mil­lions of peo­ple across the coun­try are work­ing re­motely, we’ve fast come to a col­lec­tive re­al­i­sa­tion that we do not need to be to­gether in or­der to work to­gether.

Thanks to broad­band and Wi-Fi, con­nec­tiv­ity has grown by leaps and bounds. We don’t need an of­fice en­vi­ron­ment to work col­lab­o­ra­tively or ef­fi­ciently.

The last thing any­one needs is a trans­port sys­tem that fun­nels even more peo­ple into an al­ready over­crowded city.

Af­ter so many years of cam­paign­ing, it will be hard for the Gov­ern­ment to now back­track on HS2. But. at a time when our pub­lic purse is stretched, it would be the right de­ci­sion to for­get the project al­to­gether and re­di­rect funds where they will make an im­me­di­ate im­pact – com­bat­ing dig­i­tal poverty.

Bridg­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide by en­sur­ing ev­ery child and adult in the UK has equal op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with dig­i­tal ser­vices would do more for our econ­omy in the long run than any rail­way ever could.

The dig­i­tal di­vide has long been a con­cern – but the cur­rent crisis means there is more at stake than ever. There are 1.9m house­holds with no ac­cess to the in­ter­net. This is for a plethora of rea­sons – from the lack of in­fra­struc­ture in ru­ral ar­eas to peo­ple not be­ing able to af­ford the monthly costs.

And now Covid-19 has wor­ry­ingly ex­posed a new re­al­ity in dig­i­tal poverty. As school lessons have moved on­line, Labour MP Siob­hain McDon­agh has re­ported there are 700,000 disadvanta­ged chil­dren with­out the tech­nol­ogy needed to study on­line at home. It is ab­surd that in this dig­i­tal era, fun­da­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion can be stalled due to a lack of con­nec­tiv­ity. For young peo­ple all across the coun­try, a lap­top or tablet is not an ac­ces­sory; it is the gate­way into the econ­omy.

Af­ter so many years of con­sul­ta­tion, it will be dif­fi­cult for the Gov­ern­ment to re­verse its de­ci­sion on HS2. But we are liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent time. The Gov­ern­ment needs to move on from the HS2 fi­asco and cre­ate a strat­egy whereby ev­ery in­di­vid­ual in the UK has a right to 5G and suf­fi­cient Wi-Fi.

Ac­cord­ing to the ONS, one in 10 peo­ple do not have ac­cess to the in­ter­net – and with eco­nomic strug­gles ahead, this could de­crease fur­ther, as fam­i­lies strug­gle to pay bills. It is im­per­a­tive ev­ery­one has af­ford­able and re­li­able dig­i­tal ac­cess.

We’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to many U-turns from the Gov­ern­ment, and HS2 should be next.

We have funds at our dis­posal, which have the po­ten­tial to trans­form our econ­omy, boost re­gional de­vel­op­ment and help tackle dig­i­tal poverty. It’s not a ques­tion of if, but when. We can ei­ther move ahead with the time, or in­vest in out­dated in­fra­struc­ture. There is only one right an­swer.

‘En­sur­ing ev­ery­one has equal op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with dig­i­tal ser­vices would do more for our econ­omy than any rail­way’

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