Rural communities ‘digitally excluded’ from key services

Residents across the UK’s small towns and villages are being digitally excluded from key services due to underinvestment in rural connectivity and skills, a new report has warned.

The research, published today by Rural England CIC, found that while the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital-first lifestyles in rural areas – with 53 per cent of residents in these locations expecting to make less use of town centres after the pandemic – poor connectivity is still leaving many behind.

The study revealed that 93 per cent of rural residents increased their use of those online services that they already used before the pandemic, while over half started using some online services for the first time, for clothing and food shopping.

27 per cent used online or virtual consultations with a local GP for the first time, while 15 per cent used online banking for the first time and 63 per cent increased their use of online banking.

But the report says there is risk of barriers to those who may find it hard to adapt or are unable to access fast, reliable digital connectivity where infrastructure still lags behind. Around one in six rural residents cannot access superfast broadband and over half cannot get an indoor 4G mobile connection on all four networks.

There are also a higher proportion of older adults in rural areas compared with the England average, which means that there are particular vulnerabilities when access to services relies upon the availability of digital knowledge and skills.

“These findings suggest that the pandemic may have left people living in rural England facing a Catch-22 situation,” said Brian Wilson, author of the report and chairman of Rural England CIC. “The growing appetite for online services is no bad thing, but it will have significant consequences for those rural residents facing digital exclusion due to lack of online skills and connectivity.

“Rural areas, which already face disadvantage, needs to be supported to ensure that businesses and communities can thrive and are not left behind as the nation builds back following the pandemic. With the upcoming levelling up programmes, it is vital that public policies and programmes are rural proofed.”

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