Or why this isn’t an IT project.
Last year, when Jeremy Hunt announced the BDUK competitions, I commented at the time that it felt like ambition was back on the agenda.
A year on, localism is really beginning to play out – or perhaps more accurately, a developing understanding of what it might mean is beginning to grow as local authorities construct their broadband strategies. This process has created a space for communities, the public sector and the telecoms industry to have a dialogue.
As with any organic and new process, progress is far from uniform – in some places communities are developing a stronger voice; in other the local authority is taking a stronger lead; and some parts of the industry have been more receptive than others. In some areas progress has been rapid, and in others painfully slow.
If there is a criticism of the new localism agenda, it is this.
Local authorities have spent more than a decade increasingly micro-managed. There has been little reason to consider risks in their corporate strategy as they were largely told by central government how and what to prioritise. There has been little reason to open a dialogue with local communities because there was little scope to adapt to their needs.
Localism has put this process sharply in reverse – local authorities now need to consider their appetite for risk and to match it with their communities ambitions and needs – yet these skills no longer come easily to many councils. This isn’t a criticism of councillors or council officials – its simply a reality.
In fact, to their credit, many councils have risen to the challenge – at times it may be faltering but nevertheless localism is happening and I suspect it feels rather liberating.
But in some areas it has proved harder – the tools with which to form a dialogue with communities have been harder to muster, and the risk associated with taking risks has been too difficult to contemplate.
A common theme among these areas is that they typically draft in the IT department to lead their bid, assuming that developing a broadband strategy is a technology process which can be developed from the centre and in isolation using their specialists. Its not!
- Broadband plans are about the local economy and competitiveness,
- Broadband plans are about how local services are delivered,
- Broadband plans are about people and businesses.
Local authorities who hand their broadband strategy over to their IT department will ultimately be as disappointed as if they had handed teaching or social work over to them.
IT is an enabler that helps to solve real world issues; broadband is just a tool they might use that cuts across every possible policy area. The strategic basis of a broadband plan must be in the hands of people who deal with those real world issues.
Look to Ed Vaizey. Ed is a multi-faceted person but he’s not a technologist, he doesn’t surround himself with geeks, and yet he fully understands the impact a good broadband strategy will have on the creative industries and media, rural areas and the wider economy.
Rory Stewart has seen the benefits of localism and the impact broadband could have on his rural constituency without resulting to a discussion on bits, bytes and symmetry.
The certain disappointment of not following their lead may be hard, expensive and slow to rectify as well.
If neighbouring areas solve this problem better then rate-paying businesses will begin to migrate, making the rural areas a place to retire to rather than grow a business.
If businesses migrate, younger people will migrate to find the work.
And an area with relatively poor infrastructure means even elderly people will slowly migrate as the services which would keep them in touch with their families and allow them to stay in their homes longer won’t be there.
The risk associated with avoiding risks is much higher than developing a measured appetite that allows local ambitions to be met.
Being ambitious for your locality is the less risky path to tread.