Although voted one of the best places to live in Britain – and rightly so – like any rural community, Rutland faces a unique set of challenges not shared by our counterparts in more urban areas. That has always been the case, but it should not, and does not, stop us from pressing ahead.
The Government has been bringing forward a raft of measures over recent months to help support towns and villages like ours. In one of my columns for the Rutland Times last year, I set out how the Universal Service Obligation (USO) will ensure people living in rural communities receive the broadband speeds others enjoy across the country. It will also, of course, help the small businesses that underpin our local economy remain competitive.
In essence, the USO is a legal right to request a broadband connection with a minimum download speed of at least 10 Mbps, the speed that Ofcom, the independent regulator, says is needed to meet the requirements of an average family. Whilst that is a faster obligation that any other in Europe, the Government has been absolutely clear from day one that it will deliver this ambitious proposal.
When I last wrote, BT had just put forward a plan to Ministers which would see them voluntarily build the infrastructure needed to connect the majority of households and businesses, rather than wait for this to be done on request. After careful consideration, the Government announced in the week leading up to Christmas that it will not be taking this voluntary plan forward, believing that regulation is the best way of making sure everyone in the UK can get a decent connection as soon as possible.
I believe this is the right decision. It will mean that the minimum speed of connection can be increased over time as consumers’ connectivity needs evolve, and by enshrining the obligation in regulation, it provides greater enforcement powers to ensure households and businesses really do get connected.
This will supplement the fantastic work already being carried out by Rutland County Council, with Digital Rutland, the multi-million pound partnership implementing these upgrades, having the highest uptake of all other counties. The council is proactively working with BT to progress its deployment plans, and a considerable number of premises are due to receive access speeds greater than 30 Mbps in the near future.
But all of this talk of digital should not mean we forget about the basics.
The Post Office remains at the heart of communities across the UK, especially in rural areas, and thanks to ongoing Government investment, 95 per cent of small business customers can now access everyday banking services in Post Offices, making it easier for SMEs to do business.
Although the Post Office has moved into profit for the first time in 16 years, and branch numbers are the most stable they have been for decades, we cannot be complacent, which is why the Business Secretary announced last month that an additional £370 million will be invested to secure the Post Office network, bringing the total amount invested since 2010 to £2 billion.
The Government recognises the challenges we face, and working with our local council, I am confident that Rutland will continue to go from strength to strength in 2018.