As part of the LGA’s Economic Growth Advisers programme Kada Research were commissioned to assess Burnley’s current digital connectivity and what networks, skills and technologies might best support digital growth across the borough. It involved a desk-based review, insights from elsewhere and a business telephone survey with 109 local firms. It culminated in a five-point digital action plan that, when implemented, would place Burnley well to exploit new digital opportunities.
Over the ten years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnley experienced an increase in jobs and economic output as well as private sector investment and population growth. However, like with other localities, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the economy and in response to its impacts and uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union, the council wanted to take action to stimulate innovation and productivity growth, diversify supply chains, and support the growth of the local knowledge economy. ‘Burnley’s New Economy – A Strategy for Recovery and Growth’ was adopted in October 2020. It acknowledged the importance of embracing rapid global technological developments, advocating a digital strategy to support skills, infrastructure improvements and business growth.
Kada research were commissioned amidst this backdrop to assess the current situation and what networks and technologies are required to meet the needs of businesses and maintain the borough as a competitive place to do business and where residents are able to benefit from more flexible and hybrid models of working. The main challenges set out through this study were:
- to better understand the current digital infrastructure and take up for businesses and residents in the community within Burnley
- assess global and national trends in digital connectivity
- assess planned developments for Burnley, which will increase digital connectivity
- assess different strategies for urban and rural areas of Burnley
- develop a pragmatic plan for increasing digital connectivity within Burnley.
A five-point plan for improving Burnley’s digital connectivity was developed following research and a consultation exercise carried out with local businesses.
The study carried out by Kada Research involved a desk-based review of existing evidence including data from Ofcom and Centre for Cities, insights and review of best practice from elsewhere and a business survey with 109 local businesses about their digital connectivity and plans. It aims to provide Burnley with a comprehensive, innovative and evidence based digital action plan that, when implemented, would place the borough at the forefront of regional, national, and global digital growth, employment, and development.
The key findings were that Burnley has high levels of superfast availability but gigabit availability lags behind UK targets for 2025. Overall, in terms of high-speed digital connectivity the borough fares comparatively well. However, fibre to the premises take up remains very low, parts of the borough including the town centre and, Hapton and Padiham have lower levels of superfast connectivity despite there being clusters of businesses in these locations. Provision is focussed on highly dense residential areas.
There remains a large gap between availability and take up of fast broadband services. Based on the business survey, the biggest barriers identified for businesses are reliability and cost.
The findings have resulted in a five-point action plan:
- Take Burnley’s digital infrastructure to the next level
Raise visibility of digital infrastructure in the council’s policies, programmes and strategies and consider engaging with partners such as Superfast Lancashire and BT Open Reach to take advantage of sub regional opportunities and reach ultra-fast fiber targets. The council should also support businesses by offering impartial advice to firms on how best to enhance reliability and performance of their broadband connections.
- Narrow Burnley’s digital divide and inspire the next generation of tech entrepreneurs
Consider joining the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network Policy Lab to map digital inequality across the borough and set a target to reduce digital inequalities and appoint digital champions to support community engagement. Consider working with partners on new programmes for schools, colleges and community groups to develop a pipeline of digitally skilled workers.
- Promote digital excellence through investment in advanced digital skills
Liaise closely with key partners on digital skills priorities to promote digital placements and work experience, exploit current and emerging funds such as the fast-track digital workforce fund. Promote local use of free online skills programmes such as Google’s Digital Garage, Open University’s Succeeding in a Digital World, and Microsoft’s Digital Skills Hub. Offer digital boot camps or short intensive training/digital workshops for local firms.
- Support aspiring, scaling or late-stage digital entrepreneurs
Ensure tech entrepreneurs in Burnley are able to exploit appropriate growth, sector and trade programmes such as TechNation, AMRC North West for their digital transition programmes, and Department of International Trade’s digital commerce support.
- Promote digital excellence
Work closely with Digital Lancashire and revitalise the Digital Burnley Group, using the opportunity to steer skills funding and programmes and stimulate business engagement.
Promote digital success stories via council, stakeholder, and associated organisations using case studies (written, voice and video) and develop marketing collateral for new investors.
The top four benefits of enhanced digital connections cited by the 109 local businesses surveyed were increased responsiveness and productivity levels followed by increased efficiency savings and reduced costs. The council will work with its partners and industry providers to take forward the actions. A key outcome of the work has been to re-establish and revitalize the Digital Burnley Group - a group of businesses in the digital sector who have worked collaboratively addressing issues such as workspace and skills. The group receives support from the council’s Economy and Growth unit, and it is through this group that the report will be taken forward and sustained.
In terms of the study approach: A comprehensive business survey gave the economic growth adviser an up-to-date assessment of digital performance, opportunities, and requirements. Detailed comparative quantitative analysis allowed the adviser to dispel some inaccurate perceptions of Burnley’s digital offer and performance and focus on priority areas, residents, and businesses.
In terms of the action plan: The approach taken was to build on local strengths and use transferable insights from other locations that could be adopted at relatively modest cost. Finally, the identification and engagement of local digital ambassadors from the Digital Burnley Group supported by a council officer will ensure the five-point plan is adopted and realised.