GREATER DIGITAL adoption in rural areas could add £12 to £26 billion a year to the UK economy, according to a new report.

Research by Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College, commissioned by Amazon, concluded that greater use of digital tools and services could deliver 4 to 8.8% of additional Gross Value Added per year for the rural economy, as annual business turnover in rural areas grew by at least £15 billion, with rural microbusiness and small-sized business seeing the greatest returns.

The report outlined five themes for the private and public sectors to help support this opportunity, including Rural Digital Enterprise Hubs, training and skills development and future support programmes targeting digital growth for rural businesses.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen opportunities for rural entrepreneurs transformed through e-commerce, better delivery services and growing access to fast broadband," said Amazon UK country manager Doug Gurr. "But as today’s report shows, there’s much further to go before anyone can say the rural-urban divide has closed.

“Embracing digital technology not only benefits the economy; it also allows rural communities to combine great quality of life with access to global opportunities. We are working to play our part in helping achieve the report’s ambitions through programmes such as Amazon Academy events and webinars, where last year we helped hundreds of rural businesses learn how to go digital.”

The report found that the South West, Eastern and South East regions, which have the largest share of rural businesses in the country, are set to benefit the most from greater digital adoption. If those digital constraints could be removed in rural areas, an estimated £15bn or more could also be generated in additional business turnover.

Microbusinesses (those with up to nine employees) in rural areas would see the greatest benefit, generating an additional £9.4bn in annual business turnover; followed by £4.6bn for small businesses (10 to 49 employees), £700m for medium-sized businesses (50 to 249 employees) and £200m for large businesses (over 250 employees).

“Rural businesses are to a considerable degree already strong digital adopters, and most recognise the importance of going further in future," said Brian Wilson, chair of directors at independent think tank Rural England. "However, their ability to go digital has been held back by constraints which have included connectivity but also extend to a lack of skills, training and resources.

“To help address these constraints and boost rural economic productivity, we believe there are some straight forward ‘quick wins’, which if delivered locally, nationally and UK-wide, could have a significant and positive impact on the quality of life for rural communities and the UK economy as a whole.”

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove said: “This report is very welcome. The internet has the potential to ensure the countryside can flourish in a way that combines preserving the environment with economic dynamism. Digital technology can open opportunities, build skills and connect rural businesses to global markets."