Carter Jonas
Carter Jonas

Digital divide is threat to rural economy

Defra has published an updated version of its Farm Business Income (FBI) estimates for the 2014-15 year which shows that 60% of cereal farms failed to make a profit if income from EU support payments, and other diversified income, is excluded.

This not only demonstrates the challenges facing farmers in light of the fall in commodity prices but also the importance of diversified income streams without which many farms will struggle to survive. And in this context the growing digital divide is becoming an increasing problem.

For example, when contemplating the conversion of farm buildings to offices, one of the most important features to consider is whether or not it is possible to provide access to broadband. This is even beginning to impact on the letting of some residential properties on rural estates Carter Jonas manages here in the South West and elsewhere.

Many living and working in urban areas, as I do in Wells, will be all too familiar with the inadequacy of our digital infrastructure and mobile phone reception, but there is hope that these inadequacies will at some stage be remedied.

As a result of this widespread rural problem the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) submitted written evidence to an inquiry by the Parliamentary Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee on the digital economy.

The CLA noted that the Government has put a significant emphasis on the role of the digital economy as a mechanism to increase productivity in our economy and, in its evidence, highlighted the appetite in rural areas to use new technologies. However, the CLA raised concerns about the lack of connectivity in rural areas which is contributing to the ever-widening rural-urban digital divide.

This is becoming a big problem for all businesses in the countryside, not least farmers who are increasingly being required to submit information electronically such as that concerned with registering cattle identification and movement information or VAT returns and these requirements are only going to increase.

Failure to address this digital divide will result in farmers and other rural communities becoming increasingly isolated from the wider economy, a real concern for the future of the countryside. The Government has announced that by 2020 it wants all communities to have broadband of 10 mbps as a right, just as they have water or electricity. By that time, of course, technology may well have moved on and 10 mbps will be regarded as slow. It will be interesting to see how well broadband provision meets rural needs and whether the Government’s 2020 vision of 10 mbps for all as a minimum service becomes a perfect vision.

James Stephen

James Stephen

Partner

James is a partner who heads up Carter Jonas’ South West rural operation, managing the teams in the four offices of Marlborough, Bath, Taunton and Truro.  He primarily works out of the Taun...

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