It strikes me that hosting an annual conference has a lot in common with Christmas; months of organisation and anticipation, leading up to one frenetic day, punctuated – hopefully – by a thought-provoking speech.
While we didn’t hear from the Queen at the ACRE conference, we did attract an array of first-class speakers – from rural experts and global businesses to a Defra minister and the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund.
Only now that the badges and banners have been packed away for another year, have we had the chance to truly digest what they told us.
The theme for this year’s conference was Why Rural Matters – The Case for Investment. We wanted to examine the economic challenges facing rural communities, showcase how businesses can thrive away from big cities - and hear how rural community councils are driving social enterprises, from country parks to vineyards.
We heard from 11 speakers, who each gave us their own unique take on the rural economy and took questions from the floor. All the usual issues and more cropped up – from cuts in bus services to the need for community-led action.
But if there was a buzzword that dominated the day, it had to be broadband. It came as no surprise that the lack of superfast broadband in rural areas was cited as the biggest barrier to economic growth.
International rural expert Professor Mark Shucksmith reiterated the need for the Government to recognise the potential of rural England which contributes an annual £400bn to the national economy. Rural business is characterised by small and micro businesses which employ 70% of the workforce. The Government needs to recognise this unique and vital asset and invest in the broadband and mobile infrastructure they need to grow.
Oli Christie of mobile games company Neon Play and Debra Drew of Fabric Architecture told us slow broadband speeds were their biggest challenge. After struggling, both are paying out for fibre optic lines to get the service they need to sell their Gloucestershire-designed products around the world.
Our next speaker Simon Baxter was luckier. The Oxfordshire village of Deddington, where his firm Dijon Designs is based, was chosen by BT for the pilot of its fibre-only exchange programme. Today, the company has the fastest broadband speeds available in the country. Without the investment, they would have simply had to move away.
In the afternoon, Shadow Defra Minister Huw Irranca-Davies MP (Labour) warned that five million households without adequate broadband and the Government’s ‘digital by default’ policy were ‘slamming into each other at a rate of knots’. Defra Minister Lord De Mauley (Conservative), however, spoke of the progress made with the BDUK broadband rollout to bring superfast broadband to 95% of premises in the UK by 2017. He said the final 5% must not be forgotten and eight pilot projects were under way to establish the best technologies for reaching them.
At ACRE, our concern is that the final 5% will all be in rural areas affecting business opportunity, household access and creating a two-tier society. It is essential that the Government (now and in the future) takes steps to avoid further inequality by making access to high speed internet a priority for us all.