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.


Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.