Chris Bryce from IPSE provides Contractor Advice:
Access to the appropriate infrastructure is vital to the success of any economy, and the self-employed economy is no different.
Issues around tax and regulation are commonly cited as the key obstacles to working independently, but contractors also need access to good, effective infrastructure, including collaborative working space, superfast broadband and effective mobile coverage to prosper.
This country needs to have physical and digital infrastructure in place that supports those working independently, which in turn will boost economic growth and connectivity across the nation.
Contractors must be able to work remotely, so despite the Government’s aim to make sure 95 per cent of the population has broadband by 2017, we urge them to go further and commit to 100 per cent access – universal coverage – by 2020. A guarantee that all new housing developments will have fibre-optic broadband would be a positive step. Without this, businesses or individuals can only work to a certain degree of speed and efficiency.
The broadband available in rural areas in particular is worrying. A recent Ofcom report found that almost half of UK microbusinesses don’t have superfast broadband, which rises to a staggering 85 per cent in rural areas. The self-employed should not have to travel into the city to work effectively. It takes up too much time and adds to already rising business costs.
Poor broadband coverage in all areas will hamper the ability for freelancers to contribute to economic growth. In fact, IPSE’s own survey found that one in five self-employed people in Scotland and Wales struggle to work to their full potential due to problems with their broadband.
And just to top it all off, its not just the rural areas that are suffering, as London was recently declared to have the worst broadband in Britain according to the Government’s own statistics.
We need the very best broadband in every household if the UK is to remain on the path towards economic prosperity and maintain our competitive edge in the global market. This will also go a long way to tackling the urban and rural economic divide in self-employment and more generally, could provide another piece to the UK’s productivity puzzle.
If you are frequently on the move for work, strong mobile reception and 4G mobile broadband coverage is essential. But we need a more accelerated rollout. The introduction of “mast sharing”, where mobile companies share the same mast or antenna could help. This would ensure better coverage for all, as well as fewer masts.
There are still many other ways to improve reception, from mobile coverage on the London Underground, to ensuring rail franchising agreements include a commitment to allowing WiFi across their networks.
Yet for the self-employed, what is the use of high quality broadband if you don’t have an area to work?
Independent professionals sometimes rely on workhubs to run their businesses. These hubs are community work spaces for freelancers who often would prefer to not meet their clients in their own home. Yet there are a drastic lack of appropriate facilities across large areas of the UK, again, in rural areas in particular.
Out of an estimated 109 workhubs across the UK, 30 per cent are in London. Where they do exist, unnecessary business rates mean the cost of running them is excessive, and so prices are high. And when a third of 18-39 year olds identify cost as a major reason why they do not use workhubs, you know it’s a problem that needs addressing.
Workhubs are where the self-employed fall behind small businesses that have their own working space, as small businesses with premises are exempt from paying business rates. Yet freelancers running workhubs are effectively forced to pay them indirectly.
Our solution to this issue is straightforward – the Government needs to cut business rates for workhubs. It is a simple way of clearing the path for entrepreneurs to develop new hubs in areas up and down the country.
The Government should also work with councils and local enterprise partnerships to expand rural workhubs. This will help those who work outside the big cities, while contributing to the prosperity of areas that may have struggled to diversify their economic profile.
If the UK is going to be Europe’s, and one day the world’s, leading knowledge economy then it needs to maintain its competitive edge. Building the right infrastructure, which includes universal coverage for broadband and greater access to workhubs, is a good start.
By Chris Bryce, Chief Executive of IPSE