Tuesday’s Great Northern Conference in Leeds was a fantastic showcase of the vitality, commitment and potential of the region’s leaders, businesses and services. We were there to discuss the transformative impact that full fibre connectivity will have on the region.

As part of our £2.5bn investment in full fibre across the UK we have named over a dozen towns and cities in the North where we plan to rollout this future-proof digital infrastructure. We are already investing £150m to make full fibre available to nearly every home and business in Leeds and Huddersfield and with much more to come, the region will soon have some of the best digitally connected communities in Europe.

Five things we learned…

1. The importance of SMEs to North’s economy

Astonishingly, 99.8% of private sector businesses in the region are SMEs, employing 63% of all the region’s employees and accounting for £335bn in revenue every year.  The numbers are also growing: there are 216,000 more SMEs in the region now than in 2010. These businesses are the engine driving the region’s economy: if they are successful then the whole region will flourish

2. Digital connectivity and skills are key to stimulate growth…

However, SMEs and businesses across the region face a productivity challenge. Sarah Longlands from IPPR North explained that, while the UK as a whole has a productivity problem, this is markedly more significant in the North than in London. To reverse this trend and unlock the latent potential of the region’s businesses, boosting growth through improved digital connectivity and skills is vital. Improving productivity among SMEs could provide a £23bn per annum boost to the North’s economy.

To fully maximise these benefits, staff also need to have the skills and expertise to harness it. We heard how around half of digital vacancies in the region are hard to fill due to skills gaps, while a majority of employers would not even interview a candidate who does not have digital skills. Improved connectivity can lead to better training and retaining of talent in the North, allowing schools to use more interactive and innovative techniques.

3. And it all relies on having the infrastructure in the ground

Rick Robinson from Arup demonstrated the transformative role greater digital connectivity could play in unlocking the power of cities. He demonstrated how the data cities collect about how people use public services could lead to significant logistical improvements and catalyse economic activity. This, he emphasised, could only happen if the digital infrastructure in the ground can support it. Currently the UK is languishing at the bottom of OECD league tables for availability of the full fibre connections necessary to make that a reality, but we are working to change that.

4. Greater local decision making can ensure better outcomes

Releasing decision-making from Whitehall to a local level has long been seen as a way of unlocking growth in the regions. More Mayors and Combined Authorities in the region could be the basis for more devolved control and regional collaboration. This in turn could empower local areas to ensure that they get the infrastructure to match their specific needs, and guarantee that it is rolled out efficiently.

5. The region’s voice is powerful

With a shared vision and by working together the cities, towns and communities of the North can make the case for change, investment and powers far more powerfully than alone. Among the specific calls and recommendations at yesterday’s event we should not lose sight of the fact that making strong and ambitious arguments to ensure the region’s success collaboratively is, in itself, a big step on the path to a stronger and more prosperous North.

Working together to improve the economic prospects of the region through full fibre infrastructure and digital connectivity is vital. As Julie Elliot, MP for Sunderland Central, correctly highlighted on Tuesday we must ensure that the North is at the forefront of full fibre rollout to as many places as possible as quickly as we can.

About the author

Mark Collins, Strategy and Public Affairs Director, CityFibre

Mark is a co-founder and director of CityFibre, with extensive strategy and regulatory experience. As CityFibre’s Director of Strategy and Public Affairs, he leads CityFibre’s engagements with Government, Ofcom and policy makers, establishing the foundation for competitive investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure. Mark was instrumental in the founding of a joint venture with Sky and TalkTalk delivering Gigabit speed broadband in York. With a degree in electronics and telecommunications, Mark founded several successful telecom businesses, and played a formative role in the early stage development of Virgin Media, Sprint, Esat Telecom, Versatel Telecom and Completel.