Many governments face the problem that people are drawn to cities. Humans have been crowding into conurbations ever since they first developed in the early civilisations in what are now Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Trying to persuade people to move back into more rural areas has been a very long catalogue of failure, but many now claim that delivering high-speed internet access will do the trick.
Like so many government ideas, the assumption that delivering good internet access to remote and underpopulated areas will lead to the relocation of high-technology industries from urban to rural zones is riddled with misconceptions. It is based on the theory that rural and more remote places have a higher ‘quality of life’ than inner cities, and that people prefer whenever possible to live and work where their perceived quality of life is highest.
Just over a week ago, I wrote about some of the issues faced by those already living on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, with respect to communications, both electronic and physical. Having made the twenty-six hour journey back to a smaller but more populated island at the other end of the British Isles, I’m now comparing life on the two islands, both of which have a higher perceived quality of life than most areas which lie between them.
It is perfectly possible to operate high-technology companies from either location, but it is far easier to do so from the Isle of Wight, which is only a couple of hours from London. The southern island has a long record of successful companies, currently including aerospace electronics and radar systems manufacturers, and software developers such as Stainless Games (Carmageddon etc.). Proximity to the major cities of Southampton and Portsmouth has also been important.
The Isle of Lewis has mostly very small high-technology units, typically individuals who work remotely from the island. There is one pharmaceutical company, located in a small but thriving village, which undertakes research on omega-3 fatty acids derived from local fish supplies. Other industries more representative of the Hebridean economy are the weaving of Harris tweed, which is still literally a cottage industry, distilleries, and fish farming, as well as agriculture, fishery, and tourism.
One major difference between the two islands is the strength and activity of communities on Lewis. It is not uncommon for a small community to take over their failing local store, run it as a community shop, then develop facilities which benefit the members of the community, such as a Wi-Fi suite with video conferencing. Ironically, the latter may help people migrate from Lewis, in facilitating interviews with mainland employers.
The larger villages on the Isle of Wight often have a community centre, but I am not aware of any with such useful shared resources. Most seem more concerned with selling low-cost drinks in a bar, providing indoor sports facilities, and hosting social gatherings.
Communities on Lewis are thus closer-knit groups which provide much greater support to their members, and would be valuable to anyone considering relocating there. If you want occasional access to facilities such as video conferencing on the Isle of Wight, and can’t provide it yourself, you’ll probably have to pay a commercial provider for the privilege.
Neither island, though, seems to be attracting high-technology companies or workers at any significant rate. There are no tax benefits which might bring a glint to a Chief Finance Officer’s eyes, only increased costs every time that someone has to go to the mainland. Quality of life doesn’t appear anywhere in the corporate accounts.
For most individual developers, creatives, and other professionals, remoteness remains too disadvantageous.
Any government which seriously wants to stop rural depopulation and revitalise more remote communities has a far simpler and more direct tool in its own hands: relocate some of its own departments and agencies. That would demonstrate a real commitment to the problems, rather than investing as little as possible and expecting the private sector to carry the great majority of the cost.
In the meantime, all we can hope for is the chance to visit these places during our holidays. There’s no shortage of empty properties suitable for conversion to self-catering accommodation, and as visitors we do at least help the local tourist industry.