Digital connectivity: essential for levelling up the UK

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Gateley Hamer

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The Government’s levelling up policy was established as a vehicle for creating equal opportunities across the UK. So far housing, education and transport links have been at the top of the list of priorities and now regeneration, local transport, and cultural and heritage assets are a big focus within the second round of levelling up funding. While these continue to be of importance, the last few years have highlighted how critical digital connectivity is for businesses, public services and communities, as the UK continues to adopt a hybrid working model.

Our surveying experts at Gateley Hamer offer specialist advice on telecoms services, and believe that if local authorities wish to improve opportunities and living standards, they would be advised to consider the benefits of digital connectivity, and the steps that need to happen to reap the desired benefits, sooner rather than later. The City of Sunderland and West Midlands 5G initiatives are prime examples of what can be achieved through a bold forward vision and a strategic partnership.

The smart City of Sunderland: the benefits of a digital connectivity strategy

The City of Sunderland has partnered with BAI Communications to become a first-of-its-kind ‘smart city and 5G neutral host’. The 20-year partnership has formed ‘the network of all networks’ and the smart city model allows Sunderland to collect data from a range of city-wide sensors. This information is used by the local authority to deliver transformational use cases to improve opportunities and the quality of living – the key objective driving the levelling up initiative.

Sunderland has been successful in becoming a digitally connected city because of the vision of the leadership team. If other local authorities are looking to achieve the same, an essential element for success would be appointing a ‘digital champion’ as a project manager. This could be somebody within the local authority, or an appointed partner offering this service. The other element making Sunderland’s digital transformation so successful is its funding approach. They had to have funding secured or invested in part by themselves, but they also had to secure match funding from the parties involved with the deployment.

There are many partners keen to work with local authorities to support and drive digital connectivity strategies to improve living standards across the UK. So, the key question local authorities need to be asking themselves is can they afford to not be looking at digital connectivity initiatives?

The SRN project: improving telecoms infrastructure and coverage across rural areas

As well as securing funding and appointing digital champions to support connectivity initiatives, it’s also essential to improve telecoms infrastructure across the rural parts of the UK so no area is left behind. The Shared Rural Network (SRN) project is driving such work to boost 4G coverage for residents and businesses.

We have assisted this initiative by successfully supporting the delivery of total not-spot (TNS) sites across Scotland. The team achieved consensual approval for telecoms activities for 95% of the TNS locations by having straight-talking, honest and collaborative conversations with landlords and estate managers to alleviate any concerns about site visits.

As the sites were across the most rural and remote parts of Scotland, the Gateley Hamer team had to overcome challenging terrains to access locations for site surveys. Some sites were only accessible on foot which saw the team having to hike or walk long distances, as well as using 4x4s, all-terrain vehicles including Argocats and even boats.

The SRN project is essential for connecting communities from both a social and economic digital inclusion point of view, as well as providing health and safety benefits to remote areas. Some of the site locations have never enjoyed the benefits of mobile coverage.

To truly achieve the objectives set out in the levelling up policy, local authorities would be advised to prioritise and take a collaborative and strategic approach to digital connectivity with initiatives including partnerships, funding and digital champions, as well as improving the telecoms infrastructure across rural areas of the UK.

Gateley Hamer is regulated by RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors)

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