Agenda item

Essex and Herts Digital Innovation Zone - Annual Report

Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development (C-008-2021-22) - The DIZ Annual Progress Report sets out the partnership’s work programme over the last twelve months, highlighting key achievements and challenges, as well as initiating a discussion on future priorities.





(1)        The Cabinet received and commented on the Annual Progress report of the Essex & Herts Digital Innovation Zone; and


(2)        Provided guidance on the district’s longer-term digital ambition around place-making.




The Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development Portfolio Holder introduced the Digital Innovation Zone (DIZ) annual report.


It was noted that the award-winning Essex & Herts Digital Innovation Zone (DIZ) was established by Epping Forest DC and was supported and led by EFDC officers and members. The key roles of the DIZ was to make this area the best connected place of its type in the UK, attract and deploy investment in digital infrastructure from the public and private sectors and to encourage that the greatest value was derived from this investment through using it to allow: more flexible business activity, increased community engagement and skills and knowledge sharing, and specific purposes such as the GP practices and Hospitals being better connected.


The DIZ Annual Progress Report set out the partnership’s work programme over the twelve months, April 2020 to March 2021, highlighting key achievements and challenges, as well as initiating a discussion on future priorities.


Councillor Lion noted that the DIZ had been set up following the delivery of the  Broadband Rural Challenge Programme. The intention was to make Epping Forest the best connected District in the UK. There were now 5 District Councils and 2 County Councils involved in the DIZ, attending monthly meetings to receive updates and get involved. He went on to thank Mike Warr and John Houston for their hard work and the tremendous amount of background work carried out in setting this up. When we started, we were told by the big operators that we were too small as a District Council, so we eventually established 5 districts, 3 in Essex and 2 in Hertfordshire. And since, we have been very successful in getting a number of projects off the ground, including providing full broadband services to GPs. It’s been a real innovation and made a substantial difference to Epping Forest.


Councillor C Whitbread echoed the thanks to the officers concerned.


Councillor Bedford commented that he had attended a meeting at Whipps Cross and noted that following the Covid situation, Whipps Cross Hospital were looking to move to virtual outpatients appointments and hopefully we could mirror that with our new hospital; also they made a statement that they hoped to be the most digitally advance hospital in the country and he hoped we could match that and if possible improve on it. Councillor Philip added that clearly Health was an important part of this scheme and he noted that we had over 80% of our premises covered by gigabit broadband. That made us a leader in Essex.


Councillor Patel welcomed the support we were giving our partners, especially the GPs. He went on to ask at what point were we going to commercialise this and make money for the council. Councillor Lion noted that the DIZ was set up to reflect the Princess Alexandra Hospital footprint to manage and improve the digital services from a digital NHS point of view. We were now the first in the country to do so and were being studied by other NHS services to see how they can use a similar model to ours. Mr Houston added that the NHS was a critical partner to the DIZ, and we had been working closely with them. One of the things we were looking at was how to maximise the benefits for our residents/patients and have more efficient person focussed treatments. Whipps Cross has the aspiration to do this and in practical terms, Princess Alexandra Hospital, in terms of securing funding, have a very ambitious investment plan with a potential £50 million to invest into the whole area of digital services. Our project was not just to connect up the GP surgeries but also provide a ‘backbone’ of fibre that then could be used for a lot of other things. A key part of our project was to maximise returns so that we could enable, potentially, thousands of premises to get cost effective, full fibre delivery. Hopefully the infrastructure we had brought into Epping Forest over the last 4 to 5 years puts us in a good position to be a path finder and leader in ensuring our residents get the latest first.


Councillor Philip added that we were facilitating the deployment of digital infrastructure, not doing it ourselves. In terms of getting payback from our residents that was in making this district very attractive to businesses and bringing in more money that way by making this a better place for people to live and work. He noted that we could not compete with the commercial broadband providers. We need to just keep doing what we are doing and making it more attractive for businesses.


Councillor Kane noted that the report was asking for guidance on our longer term ambition. He thought we ought to be capitalising on our investment and the infrastructure that we have put in place by looking at the ‘Internet of Things’ projects; things like digitalised bus stops, where car parking spaces were, where there were available charging points etc. To look at projects to utilise the infrastructure we have in place to benefit our residents.  Councillor Philip said that was good guidance, and it had been suggested that we looked at some of this around schools. It may well be that we can provide a service that we could charge for. But we need to make places better for living and then we can decide whether we do it by covering through our Council Tax or by charging for specific uses of things.


Councillor Lion noted that we only had two officers working on this, but we got a lot of “bangs for our buck” and we also have seven partners, each one contributing financially to make the DIZ successful. It was all about improving our services to our residents and he was not sure how they would charge for this as we would have to get our other partners onboard.  As for Councillor Kane’s point on the IoT, whilst it is something that we have not yet been able to drive forward, we are looking at concepts such as street electronics and air quality monitoring which would tie in with an IoT approach and could be of value in Harlow Gilston Garden Town as they examine how they deploy services.


Councillor Sunger asked if we had any more Local Authorities Partners. He was told that the DIZ was constrained around the area were working on and we were not looking to expand at present. It may be that we can expand to include other Local Authorities as commercial partners where we could possibly charge for our services.


Councillor H Whitbread was keen that we let the residents know about the DIZ. She was told that we could start by telling them that our GP surgeries were connected and about digital consultations, how less travel would be involved, also broadband connections for dementia related homes where broadband services could be a lifeline.


Councillor McCredie asked about transport for schools and parking and traffic around schools. She was told that the council did monitor parking at schools but had no hand in transport for schools.






(1)        The Cabinet received and commented on the Annual Progress report of the Essex & Herts Digital Innovation Zone; and


(2)        Provided guidance on the district’s longer-term digital ambition around place-making.



Other Options for Action:


Not to comment on longer-term digital ambitions.


Not to refer the report to the Stronger Place Select Committee.



Supporting documents: