Last week I joined the team from Openreach to learn more about their work in connecting South Devon to ultra-fast, full-fibre broadband. Their mission has been steadily ramped up over the last year, especially in response to their announcement to help connect ‘hard-to-reach’ areas across the South West.
Their work is seeking to replace the old copper network with a new, long-lasting fibre optic system that will last anywhere between seventy and one hundred and fifty years. It is a major upgrade of our national digital infrastructure network. The ambition is bold and the work rate is prodigious.
With more people than ever working from home and with flexible working arrangements commonplace, we need a digital network that can match the needs of our population. So, it is welcome to see that progress is being made. By 2024, many of the 9,000 outstanding poorly connected properties in South Devon will have improved digital connections. The impact of this will be huge.
South Devon may well be seen as ‘just a tourist economy’ but as I have argued in these pages on previous occasions, we are a rich and variable economy that never ceases to surprise those who dare to look. Consider the fact that; our fish market in Brixham uses 21st-century cloud-based technology to sell around the world. Our oceanographic and hydrographic manufacturers in Totnes are playing a major part in addressing climate change by helping to monitor ice and sea levels, as well as to track wildlife. The pharmaceutical industry in Paignton is producing the drugs and scientific research we need to keep us safe now and in the future. Our distillers in Dartmouth and Salcombe are putting us on the map as an epicentre in the multi-billion-pound food and drink industry. And in Kingsbridge, small and medium-sized enterprises are not only established but successfully selling into large domestic and international markets.
These businesses and sectors depend on a strong digital infrastructure. So, improving our network will not only help those working from home but those businesses that we already have in our midst. Of course, developing our connectivity further offers us the chance to entice and encourage those investors and entrepreneurs to look beyond those city metropolises.
To do so we need to promote our area through organisations like Torbay Together and the Great South West. Such initiatives have long recognised the strength of our local economy and are now taking the initiative to bring local actors together to promote and platform our region.
Success will be judged by businesses opened, jobs and careers created and skills enhanced. Already there are signs that our economy is expanding far beyond tourism and hospitality. The rapid rise of the photonics sector, to name just one, is an area of speedy growth that will have a long-lasting positive impact on South Devon’s economy.
To capitalise on our strengths, we must also address our weaknesses. There remains a significant digital divide across the UK, especially in the South West, whether due to lack of connectivity or simply because people do not know how to use the technology in place. Enhancing our skills and understanding will be crucial for success in our jobs market and in attracting more investment and new businesses.
The South West has an economy worth £64.4bn, almost double the size of Greater Manchester or West Midlands. Improving our digital network will only help to develop and boost what we already have, and make us all the more attractive to those looking to create new businesses and industries.
After all, if we can improve our digital network, we can create more jobs, we can ensure more homes are purchased by those living and working in the area and we provide great opportunities for the South West as a whole.