Why Rural Enterprise Zones Matter

EU Digital Commissioner Andrus Ansip wants European governments to close the gap between rural and urban digital economies. To achieve this goal E RADAR’s Will Roebuck calls for the setting up of new Rural Enterprise Zones to meet the challenge of Britain’s Northern Powerhouse strategy head-on in Yorkshire.

We can only realise Britain’s Northern Powerhouse aspirations when policy makers, civic and community leaders come together with entrepreneurs and business owners to unlock the power and capabilities of the local rural digital economy in Yorkshire.

We need to set up a South Pennines Rural Enterprise Zone.

We rely on urban centres to drive investment, enterprise and innovation. But rural areas have much to offer too: cottage industries springing up everywhere; diverse businesses accessing global markets; intelligent communities; professional and skilled workers choosing to work from home rather than commute to urban offices on overcrowded, expensive trains. We have seen the rise of back bedroom businesses and 4.2 million people in the UK are now working from home. Now is the time to Gigabyte our rural digital economy so that we can stay competitive in a global economy. There are plenty of case studies around to show that competitive rural digital economies work, for example Clay County Kansas, USA.

Rural and urban digital economies are interdependent upon each other, components in a large sustainable ecosystem that, if unlocked and fully realized, could add as much as £63 billion to UK GDP, according to a recent House of Lords Report on the UK’s Digital Future.

The European Commission-funded DigiChampz Initiative carried out amongst digital users in rural Kirklees has concluded that, with better organisation, advocacy skills, inspiration and entrepreneurial flare rural businesses can raise their game to take full advantage of the digital economy. Local policy makers too need to raise the stakes and set out an integrated rural strategy that takes into account how digital technology is influencing and changing our behaviour.

We are beginning to see signs of a rural digital renaissance. Let’s support rural teleworking, social inclusion and e skills by developing digital enterprise hubs across our small towns and villages, for example in local libraries. Rural communities can also unlock value in local supply chains by developing branded, online trading platforms to empower local cottage industries, food producers and small-scale manufacturers.

Holmfirth (pictured above) for example, is looking to build upon the enormous success of the BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine programme, filmed in the town and stunning countryside roundabouts. Actually, the town has a thriving and diverse community with many events taking place during the year. But superfast broadband is rubbish and the local economic plan is uninspiring, lacks ambition, and shows lack of strategic thinking on the opportunities and benefits of the digital economy.

A South Pennines Rural Enterprise Zone would help businesses, community organisations and residents in small towns and villages across this region take full advantage of the opportunities and benefits of the digital economy. The new zone would also serve to support and take strength from, the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.

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