Alex Cole-Hamilton: ‘The digital divide hurts rural communities right across Scotland’
I believe that technology can transform our society.
As the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I want to see our country make things again and capture the imagination of the world, through industry and innovation.
But to do that we need to make sure that everyone has access to the tools they need to learn, to invent and to innovate.
But for many people these tools are out of reach.
At home in Edinburgh I take it for granted that my children will have no difficulty logging in for online lessons. But outside the Central Belt, too many pupils spent the pandemic waking up and wondering “will I be able to join my online classes today?”
Whether it’s the delivery of healthcare, access to education resources or businesses moving online, the digital divide hurts rural communities right across Scotland. It is the dam that holds back a torrent of creativity and innovation and plays a part in forcing entrepreneurs, the elderly and the young to leave their communities behind.
The SNP have been promising superfast broadband for rural homes in Scotland for years. But outside the central belt progress has been slow. Earlier this year we even saw an SNP MSP forced to take part in a committee meeting from the back of his car because his rural home connection was “unusable”.
For a party obsessed with independence, it is rather ironic that the SNP’s priority is always to centralise control in Edinburgh. I believe connectivity can be a case study in how to do things better. We shouldn’t accept a situation in which the contract for the highlands and islands has only just been awarded after a four year delay. And even under that contract many households and business will be left out of connection and be saddled with high costs into the future.
Instead of relying on a distant and uninterested government in Edinburgh I want to see local authorities given the financial firepower and authority to take the decisions that are best for their communities, for example by establishing a network of community connection managers to put in place bespoke solutions for communities who fear they are being left behind.
Modern digital connections are essential to give every part of Scotland the opportunity to thrive. We need high speed connections supported by reliable mobile phone signals to support a wide variety of business, education and new innovations in telemedicine in every corner of the country.
That’s why over the next five years I will be pushing the Scottish Government to ensure that Scotland has the digital skills, infrastructure and resources it needs to flourish.
In education we should be making sure every child has access to connected technology and the digital devices they need to learn the skills of the future.
In our health service we should be listening to the views of NHS staff as to which service innovations they pioneered during the pandemic will be essential to rebuild the health service. There is lots of scope to use new technology and digital links to give people better access to care and cut down on admin and bureaucracy.
Likewise within our police service, there are huge benefits to be had from investment in IT capabilities, unlocking future savings and ending the reliance on analogue technology in a digital age.
Scotland has an immense variety of technical, scientific and engineering skills that need to be put to good use. As we recover from the pandemic, we have the perfect opportunity to think again about decentralising services and tackling the ways in which poor connectivity is holding people back.