Britain’s economy could be boosted by £1.5bn by 2020 if as few as 30 towns across the country are given access to better digital infrastructure and technology, according to a new report released today by O2. The “Rebalancing Britain: Inspiring thriving Digital Communities” report also reveals how technology can transform towns outside of London and the South East and rebalance the current North-South economic divide.

The “Rebalancing Britain: Inspiring thriving Digital Communities” report is based on O2’s Digital Communities pilot in partnership with St Helens Council between October and December 2015. It used technology to tackle poor productivity levels among local businesses, address digital skills shortages and improve access to connectivity.

The report assesses the impact of the pilot and makes recommendations to help fuel Britain’s economic growth, particularly in the North of England. Key findings from the report include:

  • Longer-term, measures within the pilot could inject an additional £46.3m to the St Helens economy by 2020 – representing 10% additional growth compared with current economic trajectory for the town over that period.
  • The estimated growth in St Helens by 2020 is driven through increased job creation, enhanced workforce productivity and supply chain multiplier effects.
  • Wholesale and retail trade (34%), business support services (22%) and professional services (7%) will see the biggest increases in additional jobs.
  • Due to the improved infrastructure and increased digital engagement in the town, St Helens moved 15 percentage points (17 places) up the Digital High Streets Index, originally created in conjunction with the Department of Communities and Local Government in March 2015.

Looking beyond St Helens, the study also assesses the potential for technology to close the North-South economic divide. It found:

  • Replicating the pilot in just eight towns in the North of England could boost the region’s economy by an additional £410m by 2020, helping to close the growing gap with the South
  • Adoption of the measures in as few as six towns in the Midlands could inject an additional £351m by 2020, with the potential to kick-start the Chancellor’s proposed Midlands Engine

Drawing on the learnings from the pilot, the report sets out a Blueprint for business, central government and local authorities to help build thriving digital towns across Britain and drive sustained growth. Key recommendations include:

  • Every local authority must have a digital strategy. With smartphone ownership doubling in the last five years, local authorities which fail to integrate mobile into their organisational strategies will miss a huge opportunity to engage local citizens.
  • Make digital a key pillar in City Devolution deals. Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield are already signed up to new devolution deals; but these cities will still struggle to compete effectively unless they embed digital at the heart of their investment plans.
  • Appoint digital champions to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Each LEP needs to have a dedicated digital expert to ensure that local authorities, businesses and others stakeholders are not neglecting the critical infrastructure and skills requirements which enable the digital economy to flourish.
  • Prioritise the development of digital infrastructure. Without informed decision-making by local authorities and reform of the planning and Electronic Communications Code, coverage and capacity difficulties will become more common place and the national and local digital economy will suffer.

Ben Dowd, O2’s business director commented: “This report is a stark reminder that digital plays a crucial role in delivering future economic growth and rebalancing the chronic North-South economic divide currently gripping our economy.  Through our Digital Communities pilot we’ve seen first-hand the benefits that relatively simple connectivity, such as new wifi hotspots and smartphones, can bring to an entire town.

“Now it’s time to ensure that no matter where you live or run your business, you can make the most of digital technology and its benefits. That’s why today we are releasing a Digital Communities Blueprint to call on other businesses and government to help more towns to follow in St Helen’s footsteps and be part of a truly digital Britain.”

 Mike Palin, Chief Executive of St Helens Council said: “This is a borough that played a key role in the industrial revolution. And now we feel we’re very much at the forefront of a new, digital revolution by showing just what’s possible – and the benefits that connectivity can bring

“By helping to point the way forward for northern town and cities like ours, we believe St Helens has helped to shape a new digital landscape that will help to rebalance the UK economy.”

The Digital Communities Pilot in St. Helens ran from October to December 2015 and was designed to show how connectivity can help communities across the country to prosper. Key initiatives within the pilot included:

  • Digital Makeovers for businesses: Over the period, eight local small, analogue businesses in the local area received free consultations and the latest technology to help them grow
  • Workshops in the O2 digital hub: The project saw a disused retail space in the town centre turned into a digital hub for the whole community. More than 1,200 people attended over 40 sessions, ranging from digital careers clinics to social media surgeries for SMBs, coding clubs and online safety sessions for parents.
  • Free wifi hotspots: O2 established two wifi hotspots in the town centre and at the local college. It was used by over 5,000 people and businesses.
  • O2 Think Big grant giveaway: 15 grants  were given to young people in St Helens to help kick-start turning their digital ideas into reality. Through the scheme, the budding entrepreneurs benefited from funding and mentoring.
  • Digital Healthcheck for small businesses: A portal for local businesses to measure their digital health

To find out more and download the report, visit 

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