Yorkshire is losing out on digital 'jobs of the future' because of its poor transport links, warn business and political leaders

Yorkshire - and particularly its small towns - are lagging behind in the number of digital jobs held in the region.
Yorkshire - and particularly its small towns - are lagging behind in the number of digital jobs held in the region.

Yorkshire’s burgeoning digital sector is being stifled by poor transport links across the region and patchy broadband connectivity, according to business and politics experts.

New research by the think-tank Centre for Towns - seen exclusively by The Yorkshire Post - shows the region is lagging behind the rest of country when it comes to securing digital jobs, employing only 55,000, or 4.4 per cent, of the industry’s 1.2m workforce.

This is compared to 690,000 digital sector positions in the South East, 55 per cent of the total, with London dominating the sector.

The research also drilled down into the disparity between cities and towns when it comes to attracting digital firms, with Leeds emerging as a tech hub in recent years while small and medium towns struggle to compete.

A Tale of Two Yorkshires as cities, towns and villages in our ageing region drift further apart

Responding to the findings, experts warned that the potential to roll out the city’s success across the region is being threatened by poor physical infrastructure, in particular the ageing transport network and patchy broadband provision.

Digital marketing expert and founder of the Leeds Digital Festival, Stuart Clarke, said: “Transport is badly letting us down.“It means that rather than having the catchment area going much wider, for example from Sheffield to Manchester to Darlington, the catchment area is much tighter because nobody wants to spend a couple of hours a day commuting. So that is a big problem.”

Centre for Towns co-founder Ian Warren said: “We already know there are sharp differences in access to broadband depending on where you live.

“This report highlights how digital sector jobs are disproportionately found in London and the major cities.

“It’s easy to see how, if these trends continue, the digital divide worsens and the jobs of the future are found in London and the major cities whilst our towns continue to lie neglected.”

Kevin Hollinrake, Tory MP for the North Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton, said: “You’ve got Bradford, the youngest city in the country, with lots of young people there who would be ideal people to travel into places like Leeds or Manchester or York, where you have got young aspiring digital-based business.

“And yet the transport links are just horrendous in getting these people around.

“So, from both of those angles we are at a massive disadvantage.”

The Centre for Towns report found that Leeds had the highest number of digital jobs in Yorkshire at 14,000 employees, with Sheffield the next big employer on just over 8,000.

Bradford, York and Hull are next in line on 4,200, 2,600 and 1,900 jobs respectively.

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Yorkshire towns trail in digital jobs revolution

They are described as the “jobs of the future” and a key part of efforts to drive economic growth in an age of rapidly-evolving technology.

But a new study has revealed the extent to which Yorkshire –and specifically its smaller towns – is lagging behind the capital when it comes to securing jobs in the digital sector.

According to research done by the think-tank Centre for Towns, the cities and large towns of the South-East dominate the growing sector, with the region home to more than 55 per cent of digital jobs and employing almost 700,000 workers.

Yorkshire and the Humber, on the other hand, boasts only 4.4 per cent of the industry, with just under 55,000 employees.

Of the UK’s regions, only two others have fewer digital jobs, with the North-East on 35,000 (2.8 per cent) and Wales on 22,000 (1.8 per cent).

Comparing the industry’s distribution across the county also reveals the stark disparity between cities and medium and small towns.

The vast majority of digital jobs are located in the UK’s cities and large towns, with over 700,000 of the 1.2 million employees in larger urban areas, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the sector.

Medium-sized towns employ 190,000 digital workers and small towns 110,000, with communities and villages accounting for the other 125,000.

Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who has pioneered the research into the divide between Britain’s towns and cities alongside the Centre for Towns, believes many areas of the country are ignored by policy-makers and businesses.

“This striking report shows that towns have been denied access to one of the fastest-growing areas of the economy,” she said.

“With the vast majority of TV and radio jobs concentrated in London, it is hardly surprising that national decision-making consistently ignores the potential in our towns.

“We have been cut out of the national conversation.”

Last year the Centre for Towns revealed – in research published by this newspaper – how cities and smaller settlements in the region are ageing at dramatically different rates.

Professor Will Jennings, of the think-tank, said its latest research revealed “stark geographical divides” on digital skills, which he describes as “the engine room of the UK’s economy in the 21st century”.

“Those divides are between London and the rest of the country, but also within regions – between major cities and outlying areas”, he said. “To develop an economic model that is sensitive to place, there is an urgent need to consider how digital jobs can be created and sustained outside London and core cities, to ensure that local economies are not left on a different track.”

London certainly dominates the industry, accounting for just under 400,000 of the workforce – giving the capital almost eight times as many digital jobs as the whole of Yorkshire.

However, Leeds has emerged in recent years as a digital hub, attracting big firms – such as Channel 4 which announced its move to the city last year – as well as a growing number of ambitious start-ups.

According to the Centre for Towns report, Leeds employs 14,000 people in the digital sector, with Sheffield the next big employer on just over 8,000.

Bradford, York and Hull are next in line on 4,200, 2,600 and 1,900 jobs respectively, while other towns in the county such as Harrogate, Morley and Halifax all employ around 1,000 digital sector workers.

Central to Leeds’s success in this area is its ability to attract and retain young entrepreneurs.

One of those is James Gupta, a tech entrepreneur who runs the business learning tool Synap.

Having grown up near Liverpool, he attended the University of Leeds and now runs his fledgling business in the city, which is looking to expand its five-strong workforce. He said Leeds was leading the way in retaining talent, adding: “I think the universities are one reason.

“So obviously we get so many students every year and we have a reasonably good retention of them as far as I can see. It’s about 30 per cent that stick around in the Leeds City Region afterwards.

“You have got things like the Leeds Festival happening every year. Young people know about Leeds. It’s got a nice reputation for that. One of the reasons that I like it and stayed here is because you’ve got a nice modern metropolitan city with the Dales 30 minutes away. So you’re getting the best of both worlds.”

Gaps in super-fast broadband mean many struggle to get connected

Comprehensive coverage of super-fast broadband is seen by many as vital to bringing digital jobs to Yorkshire.

Its importance was highlighted this week in a report that suggested the roll-out of the next generation of internet technology could boost Yorkshire’s economy by as much as £1bn a year by 2025.

Research from Barclays Corporate Banking has revealed that an accelerated adoption of 5G could supercharge a £15.7bn increase in business revenue nationwide by 2025.

Even under a slower-than-anticipated roll-out and limited use, Barclays still predicts the technology could deliver up to £8.3bn of extra revenue, with £504m in Yorkshire alone. But despite investment at local and national level, large parts of the region are still unable to get the existing forms of super-fast broadband.

Kevin Hollinrake, Thirsk and Malton MP, said: “Lots of my area is just not covered by super-fast broadband. So people, whether they are working, or doing their education or in their leisure time they just can’t get a reliable signal, whether that’s broadband or mobile phone signal.”

As identified in The Yorkshire Post’s recent coverage of the crisis in the Yorkshire Dales, leaders hope super-fast broadband could attract much-needed young families. Yvonne Peacock, leader of Richmondshire District Council, said “It’s more important to have the technology in the Dales than in urban areas because they have better infrastructure.”