Opinion: Decent broadband essential to recover from lockdown

This week, even as  the nights have started getting shorter, we finally got the winter tyres changed on the car. This is a tiny step towards a more normal state of affairs as the coronavirus lockdown starts to ease.

However, until there is a vaccine or effective treatment for the disease, we will continue to have to put up with restrictions and inconveniences.

See also: 3 positives to be had from the current pandemic

I hope and expect that the adverse effects of this crisis on our industry will prove temporary. It is likely that the late summer and autumn sheep sales will operate in a socially distanced, mask-wearing way at the local mart.

The Scottish government is currently rumoured to be considering quarantine restrictions on visitors from England. (Thanks!) In any event, I doubt we will be going to Scotland to buy tups this year. Maybe we won’t in future, either, if the local sales are successful.

More broadly, the crisis has shown beyond all doubt why the provision of fast broadband to everyone is essential – for businesses, social interaction, entertainment, education and home working.

We have discovered that large numbers of professional and administrative staff do not actually need to operate from city centre premises. They can work quite efficiently from home.

If “levelling up” and building infrastructure is this country’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, rural areas need to be part of the thinking.

All they need is a reliable, fast broadband connection. It may turn out that this is the revelation which ultimately helps the rural economy in the future.

To thrive, the rural economy needs to have a significant working age population to stimulate demand for local schools, shops, pubs and amenities, and to invigorate communities.

To achieve this, apart from access to housing, people need to have the opportunity to earn a decent living locally without having to commute.

After Covid-19, maybe home-based office work will look like a viable possibility for people in towns, villages, outlying areas and even on farms. This could be transformative.

The way the government could help is by making further investment and grants for rural broadband infrastructure. Fast broadband must be available to everyone who wants and needs it.

If “levelling up” and building infrastructure is this country’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, rural areas need to be part of the thinking.

And yes, this is the voice of slightly bitter experience. Our son did his online university exams under added pressure, knowing that the line might give up at any moment and from time to time it did. And our broadband connection isn’t really good enough for Zoom or internet-based diversification.

We were mightily relieved to finally receive a first payment of our 2019 Countryside Stewardship money during the lockdown period, at roughly the same time as the furlough scheme was implemented.

The latter involved (as at 28 June), government payments in respect of 9.3m jobs from 1.1m different employers, being processed within a matter of weeks from scratch, seemingly without a hitch. Needless to say, this exercise was not carried out by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

While grateful to have been paid at all, we have no idea why the sum we received was plucked out of the air. It was neither 75% nor the whole amount and no explanation was given.

It all seems quite random. Here is another lesson from the crisis – the successful implementation of the furlough scheme shows that it really should be possible for the RPA to do better.

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