07/05/2003

Countryside Agency warns ‘digital divide’ widening

Rural businesses are being thwarted by a lack of access to high-speed telecommunications, warns the Countryside Agency.

A report published today by the agency has raised concerns about the widening divide between town and country on the high-tech front.

Countryside Agency Chairman, Sir Ewen Cameron, said: “Our countryside is a hive of economic activity that plays a major part in driving the national economy, but our report shows that restricted access to broadband is putting rural businesses and residents at a disadvantage. New data shows a widening digital divide."

Sir Ewen said that whilst 66% of the population had access to affordable broadband technology this dropped to 26% in market towns, 7% in rural villages and 1% in remote rural areas.

“Lack of broadband access can present an expensive obstacle to new rural businesses, denying them markets for their products and services,” he said.

He called on government to “set a realistic target for reaching the whole rural population with broadband, making it easier to monitor and identify where further action is needed”.

The ‘State of the Countryside 2003’ report highlighted that 28.5% of the population (some 14 million people) live in the countryside and that the population of rural districts had grown by 12% (+1.5 million) since 1981.

On average rural incomes are higher than urban, but average rural weekly wages (£336) are lower than in urban areas (£384), with remote rural areas having the lowest average weekly wage (£310).

Agriculture’s contribution to the economy (0.8% of Gross Value Added in 2002) continues to decline and it now employs less than 5% of rural people, but remains the primary means of managing 76% of the countryside.

Businesses have been growing faster in accessible rural areas than in urban areas, although there has been little growth in remote rural areas.

Road traffic in rural areas is forecast to rise by up to 30% by 2010 and a quarter of all leisure day visits are to the countryside, with an estimated value of around £9 billion a year.

Sir Ewen concluded: “Whether we live in town or country, we all value the countryside as an essential part of our lives. But there is still much to be done to create and maintain a countryside that gives a high quality of life for people who live there, and for everyone to enjoy. The monitoring and analysis in our State of the Countryside report will help us all to get that right.”

The State of the Countryside 2003 report presents data and analysis according to 20 indicators that measure changes in rural social, economic and environmental conditions.

(SP)

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