For many who’ve been campaigning to get better broadband into the UK’s rural areas the Government’s Big Society policy agenda is a very welcome opportunity to really make a difference, to fix this problem once and for all.
With BD-UK’s programme under way and DEFRA announcing £20m to support rural community broadband things seem to be moving in the right direction – but there are some major challenges ahead.
There is a clear sense that politicians are not just espousing the big society principals, they really believe in it – just look to people like Rory Stewart, Peter Aldous and Jesse Norman, and of course Ed Vaizey.
The challenges, to my mind, lie elsewhere.
Generally, public servants have spent the last decade and more centralising – local government had become a delivery body for central government, spending money as they were told, micro-managed from above.
Localism means the direction of travel between local and central government is being put in reverse; the thinking should now be coming from local authorities in tune with their communities, and with the support of central government
This is very hard if you’ve not done it before
Whitehall civil servant’s natural belief is that they have the big picture.
Local government staff are quite naturally risk averse when confronted with new and difficult decisions which may affect the whole of their community.
It will take some time before Whitehall feels comfortable supporting rather than leading, and it will take equally long before local government feels comfortable sitting in the driving seat, guided by their communities.
In this climate, it is perhaps no surprise that the thinking influencing some local broadband plans is drawing from the known, and appears to be taking those local authorities towards a traditional procurement exercise that will ensure only the biggest, most traditional businesses win, and where community engagement is limited to little more than free marketing support.
Perhaps not surprising but it is disappointing given that the Big Society is a key strand of the Government’s policy agenda.
In the way that people like Jesse Norman introduced new thinking which led to a new wave of localism in politics, there is now a need to adopt some new thinking which will lead to localism in our digital society.
And this new thinking isn’t radical as in hippy – its radical as in different – its tried and tested in countries that have found the will to move on, and its has room in it for big companies, public bodies as well as communities – in a respectful partnership.
Successful local broadband strategies need to seek a balance:
- Which permits the safety of an established major operator while underpinning the heart and soul of a community initiative
- Which allows industrial scale investment while respecting the local stakeholders at the helm
- Which attract the best national and international services while encouraging local services attuned to the community
There is no shortage of communities wanting to become stakeholders their digital future.
There are respected and experienced organisations that can provide the support that can focus that demand into action.
There are organisations willing to help raise funding to support the demand.
All that’s needed is for the processes already in motion to be encouraging of this demand rather the dismissive, and for the industry to try something a little radical.
The reward? A new contract with communities which delivers innovation, investment and opportunities. What’s not to like?