If Covid has rammed home one thing, it’s that connectivity counts. If you’re in a mobile ‘notspot’ with faltering roads, no railway, crank-up chunternet, and only a big East Anglian sky where the twittersphere should be, you can feel pretty cut off.
Left out, more like.
That’s why I’m pushing for superfast and inclusive digital connectivity as hard as I’m pushing for better road and rail links. I don’t see any of these elements in isolation – a levelled-up Cambridgeshire means a linked-in Cambridgeshire, dots all joined in a network that people from all parts can use to get around, both in cyberspace and on the ground.
Even under the ground, in the case of CAM metro.
We’re joining those dots at full tilt, and the Combined Authority is itself increasingly relying on digital to lead the way. Digital connectivity has been front and centre in coping with Covid-19, bringing out the versatility and ingenuity in everyone.
Our team is working from home and we’ve been holding committee and Board meetings by Zoom for months. This week, as one of our Covid-dodging virtual ‘walk-in’ events for the public (which consulted townspeople on the future of March) closed, another (laying out the options for A10 dualling and gathering feedback from the public) opened its doors to give residents and road-users their i-say on the highway. Over 35,000 people visited in the first week. It’s worked so well I don’t think we’ll ever go back to completely offline consultation events.
Highway, i-way, or railway, they’re all ways to keep us connected. This week, the BBC’s Chris Mann told listeners to his show that rail improvements in Cambridgeshire were coming ‘thick and fast’ – and I’m proud to say he’s right.
In the last few days, the site for Cambridge South station has been announced, planners have approved a new station for Soham on the Ipswich-Peterborough line, we’ve got action on Fenland services – and all this on top of the enthusiastic report for reconnecting Wisbech to the rail network, potentially a huge prize for the Capital of the Fens, which we are taking to the Department for Transport this week in the quest for funds.
After all, Cambridgeshire may be famously flat but it still needs levelling up.
Re-connect the ‘left behind’, connect the left out, and they’re back in the game. Connectivity brings freedom. It brings social mobility. If you’re plumbed in digitally, you can work anywhere in the UK, or in the wider world. Covid has shown us that agile working can be a green and welcome new part of everyday life – not merely family-friendly and smog-busting, but, as we're finding here at the Combined Authority, also practical and productive.
So, just as we’re forcing the pace on rail improvements, we’re now powering forward with funding for Connecting Cambridgeshire’s new ‘Keeping Everyone Connected’ initiative to accelerate putting in digital infrastructure as part of building back better.
Our economy stumbled under Covid, but the stumble has given us the impetus to re-balance, look ahead and jump into the future with real energy. Covid has shown us new ways to live, work and communicate, and digital is the hero technology that makes them possible.
We work through Connecting Cambridgeshire to improve broadband, mobile and public access Wi-Fi coverage across the region, but we’re intensifying the effort with Keeping Everyone Connected.
It’s as much about community as business, for example, building in digital inclusion so residents of social housing are not shut out from life-changing digital provision. After all, Covid has shown digital connectivity is a utility that we need, like being on the drains or the electricity, and yes, on roads and railways. We need it for economic and social activity, for family and community wellbeing. To keep everyone in the loop.
Digital connectivity = inclusivity = greater equality.
Linking in, levelling up.
Digital is going to be transformative for the market towns. We’ve made sure that becoming ‘smart’ is built into their masterplans for the future. Because each of those towns is an absolutely cracking place to live, but some, if not all, have become ‘left-behind’ as investment and young people drift elsewhere.
The market town experience is too often poor transport, ageing populations, flight-to-the-cities, and a sense of being sidelined. What I actually want is to help create culturally and economically vibrant communities in which exciting and future-facing entrepreneurial businesses set up, employ new generations, become part of the town, and contribute to making high quality of life.
So, for me, hooking up our eleven market towns is non-negotiable. Free public access Wi-Fi will support struggling high streets, particularly in places where mobile coverage is still poor. And, where levelling up is concerned, it scarcely needs saying that the embrace of free Wi-Fi does its bit for health and wellbeing in areas of higher deprivation.
Free Wi-Fi is currently at least 150 sites across the county - libraries, leisure, community and children’s centres, sheltered housing schemes, council buildings, and some open spaces. And around 35 village halls and community buildings are being looped in too, with Combined Authority funding also extending public access Wi-Fi to open spaces in our lovely market towns.
It’s a competitive world and there are only two options. Stay ahead or drop back. If we want to stay up with the leaders, and Cambridgeshire and Cambridge are still world leaders, then we should apply 22nd century solutions to 21st century challenges. Then we will keep Cambridgeshire up there where it should be, as good a place to live, work, bring up a family, learn, and do business as any in the world.