The “Northern Powerhouse” still has some of Britain’s worst broadband speeds

Some very interesting broadband fibres. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

When you think about the north-south divide, and the "Northern Powerhouse" policy which is (honestly, definitely) going to fix it, you probably think of the difference in wages and living standards. Or maybe, if you're that bit geekier, you think about the poor quality of public transport in the north –00 the impossibility of living in Manchester and working in Leeds, for example, without spending a third of your life stuck in traffic on the M62.

One aspect of the north-south divide you probably don't think about is the difference in internet speeds. But seriously, look at this, though:

The dark green dots, cities where you can be all but guaranteed superfast broadband – that is, a network using fibre optic cables rather than phone lines – are almost exclusively in the Midlands and points south. The white dots, where as many as a third of postcodes don't have such technology, are almost exclusively in the north.

To be fair, most of the north's bigger cities (Manchester, Liverpool et al.) fall somewhere in between these two extremes – but the bad news doesn't end there. A trip into the CityMetric archive brought out this chart, using Ofcom data, showing the average speed of broadband connections in Britain's major cities back in 2014. The Northern Powerhouse cities are in dark blue:

All of which raises a question: is a powerhouse really a powerhouse when it can't even stream Netflix?

Who's to blame for this disparity is not exactly clear. Broadband speeds are largely dependent on the quality of “last -mile” infrastructure (if you think of broadband networks as a tree, these are the twigs, rather than the trunk). It's internet providers themselves that provide that – indeed, European rules on state aid make it difficult for the state to plug the gap even if it wants to.


But broadband providers are private companies: they're going to focus their investment on those places where they think it'll make a profit. That means they have an incentive to prioritise those cities that are full of rich consumers and demanding corporate customers ahead of those that aren't.

Obviously relatively poor broadband speeds aren't a cause of a north-south divide, if only because it’s been in existence since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was in short trousers. But, with an economy that's increasingly dependent on big data and connectivity, they are not going to make it easier to close it.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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