The digital divide sees North & Scotland less able to scrutinise and advise on tech policy

Omnisperience recently attended TotalTele’s Connected North conference in Manchester, UK. It was exciting to meet so many Northern tech firms and realise just how much expertise, knowledge and experience the North has. This was a meeting of what you could call ‘the greater North’, since Northern England firms were joined by those from Scotland who shared many of the same issues and ambitions.

A few things quickly became apparent. The first was how much parts of the greater North – typically those outside the major cities – were lagging behind in the connectivity game. There were many altnets attending who were determined to change this; but the industry (as usual) has started upgrading networks in the cities and cascading to towns, villages and rural areas. This, in itself, disadvantages much of the greater North.

There was a palpable sense that the North wanted to manage more of its connected future itself. Yet too many decisions are still taken in Westminster rather than locally. This is where the really big problem starts.

The problem begins with the mismatched portfolio of the department responsible for telecoms in the UK – the DCMS (Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). The government tells us that connectivity is essential for future prosperity but unlike many other countries doesn’t have a single department focusing on telecoms and tech.

There is no similarity between football and fibre. Funding the arts has little to do with rolling out 5G. Without getting into the madness of managing all these disparate things in one department though, let’s focus on the make-up of the DCMS oversight committee and why this is indicative of how the North is being failed.

Before we do, let’s briefly remind ourselves what the DCMS select committee does. It is made up of elected representatives who scrutinise the work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its associated public bodies, including the BBC. They examine government policy, spending and administration on behalf of the electorate and the House of Commons.

As can be seen in the table, there is a huge gap between the representation of the South and the North on this committee.

Region% of PopulationDCMS Select

West Midlands
4.5% per representative
London & South East
5.2% per representative
11 members representing 63 million people
South West England8.3%1
North East, North West, Yorkshire & the Humber, East Midlands
0 representatives in North West
0 representatives in Yorkshire & the Humber
0 representatives in East Midlands
Northern Ireland2.9%0

While this is not an easy or exact analysis, it can clearly be seen that some regions are over-represented and some chronically under-represented. There are 11 members for a UK population of 63 million (2011 census), meaning each MP represents an average of 5.7% of the population.

Yet the West Midlands, Wales, London & South East have far higher representation. In comparison, if we define the North as the UK regions North East, North West, Yorkshire & the Humber and the East Midlands then 19.6% of the population has only one representative and that representative comes from the North East region (Sunderland), which has only 4.28% of the population. It means all of the North West, Yorkshire & the Humber and the East Midlands are unrepresented. As is Northern Ireland.

This situation becomes even worse if we combine Northern England and Scotland. This vast area of the country – representing about a third of the UK’s population and 54% of its landmass has only 2 representatives. In comparison the South (the South East Region, London and the South West Region) has 6 representatives for 34% of the population but only 10% of the land mass.

Inevitably, this geographical bias reinforces the South East centric bias in decision making and perspective in the UK. There are 11 English regions + Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For this vital area of scrutiny there should be a representative from each region. As it stands, almost 20% of the UK population is not represented at all, which means perspectives from the North, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not sufficiently being taken into account.