An Update on Rural Connectivity Contents

3Digital public services in rural areas

21.In 2010, the Coalition Government embarked upon a process of making public services “digital by default”, whereby, if possible, the primary mode of delivering all public services should be online or digital.49 In the 2017 UK Digital Strategy, the Government continued this policy trend, supporting the transformation of services and systems using digital technology to “make them easier, simpler and cheaper”.50 The 2017 UK Digital Strategy stated that “digital connectivity is now a utility, and modern life is increasingly impossible without it”.51

22.In its 2015 Report, our predecessor Committee concluded that “beyond business purposes, householders, particularly in rural communities, are being left behind in accessing online services that most of the country can take for granted”.52 Four years on, evidence to our inquiry has highlighted a number of digital public services that are affected by poor connectivity, and which have exacerbated the effect of the urban rural divide for rural communities:

23.Beyond public service provision, our evidence showed that increasingly digital delivery of other essential services, such as banking and personal finance is also disproportionately affecting rural areas with poorer connectivity. For example, Which? analysis found that the UK has lost almost two thirds of its bank branches in the last 30 years, with over 3,000 branches closing across the country since 2015.64 This has left a fifth of households more than three kilometres from their nearest branch.65 Its research also found that 4,692 cashpoints were closed in 2018.66

24.The CLA argued that the rationale behind increasing digitisation of public services was “sound” as it was “more efficient and saves resource, which can be allocated elsewhere”.67 According to the LGA, 89 per cent of residents are “willing to use additional digital services when they become available”.68 However, the LGA did warn that any transition to digital public services was “premature” without adequate connectivity for all.69

25.More broadly there was considerable concern about the implications of a digital by default approach to public services policy in relation to rural communities, with the Countryside Alliance stressing that “remote rural communities must not be penalised by paying an excessive connection charge to access basic services.”70 The Law Society of Scotland cautioned that the growing transition to online platforms caused “the potential for discrimination against certain individuals who may have limited or no access to online services, yet have no alternative means”.71 ACRE stated that, given the eve of hyper-connectivity via full-fibre and 5G, “not to ensure that rural areas have equal access to these technologies is to condemn the 17% of people who live there either to being forced to move away or to a second-class form of citizenship”.72 It suggested that Government needed to better assess the costs and requirements that fell on citizens, customers and clients, as well as itself, before embarking upon a “comprehensive delivery philosophy” such as digital by default.73 Professor Claire Wallace and Dr Lorna Philip, two academics specializing in the urban rural divide, recommended that future digital services policies should reflect “needs not numbers” to ensure that the rural minority had the same digital opportunities as the urban majority.74

26.Leicestershire County Council argued that a digital by default approach was “essential” within “the climate of continuing budget pressures” on local authorities.75 It argued that it was “not financially viable for any local authority to put service transformation on hold due to broadband coverage limitations”, suggesting that “good digital connectivity” was the one strand in the design and implementation of digital public services that was not being considered, and stating that rural connectivity was at “crisis point” and needed “urgent attention and action”.76

27.Lord Gardiner of Kimble accepted that “until we get to the truly universal figure, there will always be people who do not have access” to services online.77 He explained that it was Government policy that there must be alternatives to the online facility and that he knew of no public service that was digital only.78 He concluded that it was “really important, as we bear down on the gap, that we do not impose digital if people simply cannot avail themselves of it.”79

28.Margot James MP explained to us that the design of digital public services across Government was administered by the Government Digital Service (GDS), in the Cabinet Office.80 DCMS told us that GDS also created accessibility guidance and standards for all of government.81 It was unclear from the Minister’s evidence whether the minimum connection speed that users would require to make a system work, and whether these speeds were available to all consumers, were considered across Government in the design process of digital public services.82 Referring to the design of Making Tax Digital, Margot James told us that she was “not aware of any assessment the Treasury has made” regarding required download speeds.83 She did however point out that, with access to 10Mbps under the forthcoming Universal Service Obligation (USO), businesses would have adequate speeds to return tax forms online with no connectivity problem.84 Conversely, Lord Gardiner stated that DEFRA did consider download speeds in designing its public facing services.85

29.When asked how much the failure to deliver effective broadband to the remaining rural areas had cost Government in terms of lost revenue or increased costs in delivering a public service, Margot James MP explained that she was “not aware of any studies in that regard”, but that there were studies that demonstrated the improved productivity of faster broadband speeds when they are introduced.86

30.In theory, digital public services could particularly benefit people in rural areas who live further away from physical services. However, continuing to deliver a “digital-by default” strategy for public services, before solving the issue of connectivity in rural areas, has the potential to worsen the impact of the digital divide. Many people living in rural areas are struggling to access basic services due to poor connectivity and the increasing difficulty of accessing these services offline. Local councils and other local service providers are potentially being driven to develop cheaper digital services, further penalising rural communities due to a lack of consideration from central government towards the realities of poor connectivity. If digital connectivity is truly considered a utility, rural communities should not be denied it. Given the continued shift towards increasingly digital public services, the Government must prioritise delivering improved connectivity for people, primarily in rural areas, with no access to adequate broadband or reliable mobile signal. In the interim poor connectivity should be taken into account in the assumptions Government departments and the Treasury make on the savings possible via digital service transformation when allocating funds for local services.

31.It is unclear whether there is any level consideration of rural needs across central Government in the design of digital public services platforms and policies. There should be requirements across Government to take account of connection speeds available in rural areas in the process of designing or updating digital public service platforms. In their response to this Report the Government should outline what work is currently done to ensure this. Any new digital public service platforms should also be trialled and assessed by rural stakeholders prior to roll out to ensure they are user friendly.

32.The business case for public investment in rural connectivity is strengthened when account is taken of the additional costs in delivery of services to significant numbers of people in rural areas who are unable to access those services digitally. The Government should therefore collect, publish, and build this data into future investment decisions.

49 Cabinet Office, Digital by default proposed for government services (November 2010), last accessed 29 August 2019; This excluded services, such as some healthcare, that require human contact

50 DCMS, UK Digital Strategy: Executive Summary (March 2017), last accessed 29 August 2019

51 DCMS, UK Digital Strategy: Executive Summary (March 2017, last accessed 29 August 2019

52 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014–15, Rural broadband and digital only services, HC 834, para 13

53 Cumbria County Council (RBD0026), para 2.2.2; see also Cheshire East Council (RBD0038), para 12; Lothian Broadband Networks Limited (RBD0036), para 2.1.3

54 CLA (RBD0011), para 29

55 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 6.2

56 Lothian Broadband Networks Limited (RBD0036), para 2.1.3; Hampshire Rural Forum (RBD0013), para 4.2; Mr Paolo Gerli (RBD0034), para 14; Cumbria County Council (RBD0026), para 2.6.2; Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (RBD0023), para 7; East Riding of Yorkshire Council (RBD0017), para 1.4

57 Lothian Broadband Networks Limited (RBD0036), para 2.1.3

58 Law Society of Scotland (RBD0022), para 17

60 University of Aberdeen (RBD0016), para 5

61 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014–15, Rural broadband and digital only services, HC 834, para 41

62 CLA (RBD0011), para 28

63 Association of Convenience Stores (RBD0028), para 3; HMRC, Overview of Making Tax Digital, last accessed 4 September 2019

64 Which? (RBD0029), para 16

65 Which? (RBD0029), para 16

66 Which? (RBD0029), para 16

67 CLA (RBD0011), para 28

68 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 6.1

69 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 6.1

70 Countryside Alliance (RBD0043), para 5

71 Law Society of Scotland (RBD0022), para 20

72 Action with Communities in Rural England (RBD0019), para 6

73 Action with Communities in Rural England (RBD0019), para 30

74 University of Aberdeen (RBD0016), para 10

75 Leicestershire County Council (RBD0015), para 9.1.2

76 Leicestershire County Council (RBD0015), para 9.1.3–9.1.4

81 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (RBD0046), para 26

82 DCMS did not address this issue in its follow up evidence to the Committee

Published: 18 September 2019