Carlisle Conference Heralds Paradigm Shift Toward Localism!

By Charles Paxton (Broadband Champion for Lyvennet Valley Community)

Better communications are increasingly being seen as essential for appropriate societal response to some important challenges of our times. Inclusive information exchange is critically important for:

More effective local government, Rural business development, Community health care outreach, Neighbourhood, Farm and business security, Regional renewable energy target obligations.

On Saturday, January 17th, 2011,  interested members of the public participated in a conference at Carlisle Racecourse, hosted by Carlisle Parish Councils Association and sponsored by British Telecom plc. that as Ronnie Auld Chair of CPCA pointed out effectively heralds a paradigm shift away from traditional top-down, Big Government – Small Society,  toward bottom-up, Big Society local empowerment. Better communications are being seen as an essential element in the transition toward greater inclusion and participation. Make no mistake, we’re not just talking about modernising technology here, a crucial element of localism is the Big Society ideal of greater public engagement in our society in multiple ways, including frank and open public dialogue and debate about the way we would like things to be. The effective exchange of ideas, perspectives and factual information is naturally expected to communicate, refine and improve ideas that can then inform practice to help steer progressive development.

As resources aren’t infinite, an important motivational factor for us is efficiency, making the most of our available resources! This is true in all matters, but especially relevant when it comes to our communications infrastructure.

BT will be making the single largest private investment of all time into upgrading British Communications infrastructure in the UK! Two and a half billion pounds.

However, unless we act in a cleverly coordinated fashion to gain maximum leverage from our existing resources, then our remote rural areas, often referred to as “the final third”, are likely to be the last areas to be connected to future proof Next Generation Access speed broadband. That’s generally considered to be symmetrical broadband at over 50 Mbps download and upload (fast enough for telemedicine applications).  Ironically, it is just these remote areas that most need connectivity to overcome the challenges represented by geophysical rural isolation, according to recent reports:

http://leith-lyvennet.broadbandcumbria.com/2010/12/09/reports-show-importance-of-rural-broadband/

There is open debate on BroadbandCumbria.com about how best to go about achieving an Eden-wide network and I recommend that you join the site, read up about it and have your say. It’s particularly important that you read The Eden Declaration (a credo statement for a desired level of service throughout Eden), and sign it too, if you agree with its contents.

The scale of the task is epic, the complexities are “eye-wateringly complex” (quoting Rory Stewart, our  MP for Penrith and The Border) but the impact is likely to resonate far into the future, promising a broad range of benefits.

The Localism Bill, likely soon to become an Act, promises to give the most local of our authorities, our Parish Councils, far greater say in many of the matters that concern us most – our local ones. This is both a momentous development and a very necessary one to help our communities cope appropriately with the current and future challenges of modern life, and just as crucially, to make the most of the opportunities.

Click here to view a digest of new powers that will help increase the influence of local authorities Localism digest

Ronnie Auld, Chair of Carlisle Parish Councils Association opened the conference with an introductory speech explaining the format of the conference, the first half examining the current problems associated with broadband in Carlisle District and its surroundings and the second half examining the likely impacts of the Decentralising and Localism bill currently before parliament. He pointed out that both the broadband problems and the localism agenda warranted an issues-based approach on the part of Parish Councils. He said Parish councils will be playing a very important role in the improvement of broadband in keeping with the Localism agenda. He drew attention to a Carlisle area survey document in our conference pack and said that alongside quantitive data about the speeds that people reported getting, there were comments that reflected that their broadband services left a lot to be desired, and compared very badly in some cases to conditions in other countries. He cited several examples of disastisfaction, one experienced problematic disconnections and just 0.39 Mbps of speed. He talked of the importance of including broadband in Community Planning.

See his speech below (kindly made available by John Popham)

http://www.youtube.com/p/0FB6CCA183CA70A6?hl=en_US&fs=1

He introduced the next speaker, Rt. Hon. Rory Stewart MP for Penrith and The Border, as our Broadband Champions’ Champion!

Rory Stewart, Broadband Champions' Champion emphasises that people inlocal communities know more, care more and can do more than remote officials.

Rory sits on the Localism Bill Committee and is one of the prime forces in the movement to bring more powers to the most local levels of government. He explained in no uncertain terms that community involvement would be essential in the effective roll-out of broadband throughout Eden and that unless there is seen to be a very good reason to stop them, the assumption should be to let each Parish or group of Parishes drive their project forward. He urged us to move away from the old state of affairs where Parish Councils  could only suggest things or be consulted to one where it is assumed that they know what they are doing.

He says “Let’s create a situation where people want to sit on Parish Councils because they know that they’ll have the power, the responsibility and sometimes the financial authority to bring about change.”

The necessity for popular local participation is partly due to financial considerations. In order to connect the 27,000 homes in Eden by conventional methods (@about £5000 per household) we’d be looking at a total of around £135 million.

He then explained that  funds have been allocated for a pilot study to help kick start the process, but that these funds were going to be spread thinly – “a proportion of £10 million” will come to Eden. This is where community support comes into it’s own. If we are prepared to gather, to define the demand and to aggregate it, to say that 70-80% of the community are prepared to use fast broadband then the economics become favourable for provision, if land owners are prepared to fore-go wayleaves, if communities are prepared to engage imaginatively and to use local assets, then the cost per premises could be reduced dramatically! Perhaps reduced to about £1000!

( Re asset sharing, please see this encouraging document (http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/business-sectors/docs/b/10-1308-broadband-deployment-sharing-infrastructure-summary-of-responses.pdf) that was drawn to my attention on broadbandcumbria.com shortly  after the conference!)

Barry Forde has since proposed a hypothetical plan that would employ great leverage, please click here to view

This is fascinating, we are now starting to get an idea of the potential tangible value in pounds of effective local democracy at Parish and Neighbourhood level and the potential value of intelligent mutualism within a competitive business framework! This is aside from, but would be compounded by the massive benefits to be derived from the better communications technology itself!

Localism clearly has major implications for our economic and social development.

Rory Stewart explaining how local community support can make fast internet accessible to Eden residents

Rory Stewart explaining how local community support can make fast internet accessible to Eden residents

Rory then said that if the Government were prepared to make patient finance available (perhaps via Parish Councils) that could be paid back at say £60 per year, then fast broadband service would seem far more attainable.

He then talked of the need to overcome a series of obstacles in technology, existing technical infrastructure and regulation. In order to make sure that the taxpayers £10 is used as well as possible then there’ll need to be an enormous amount of work done by government and civil servants. We’ll probably have a mixed solution. He cited the enormous amount of enthusiasm that was emerging in Parishes such as Crosby Ravensworth for super fast fibre to the home and said that while this unparalleled speed suited some people, he realises that other people may find a slower service acceptable.

He then introduced Bill Murphy of BT as the second guest speaker. His speech will be the subject of my next article.

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