I’ve just spent an inspirational two days in the District of Eden in Cumbria, most of it in the beautiful village of Great Asby. I was there for two days of events, the first was the Big Society Information Exchange, which I have already blogged about here, day two was largely about the Cumbria Broadband Champions event. I’ve posted the videos from this event below.
I have to say that I came away from Great Asby feeling elated, energised and optimistic. As I said in the previous post, I retain doubts about the ability of the Big Society agenda to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged in society, but, I am an optimist at heart, and determined to do what I can to join in the effort to empower everyone in every community to achieve what is important to them. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen how it can be done in Eden. Yes, it is a Big Society Vanguard area, and, no, not every area is going to get the support that Eden is getting. And, not every area has an MP like Rory Stewart who is galvanising everybody, at all levels from the senior civil service to the smallest community group, to pull together around the Big Society banner. Every community is different, but I think that already a lot has been achieved in Eden and lessons are emerging. It was really encouraging (if not a little unnerving) to see the numbers of people who turned out on both days to cram into a tiny village hall and talk about their passions. We need to capture this spirit and spread it around, and we probably need to clone Rory Stewart, and the likes of Libby Bateman, who is an amazing dynamo, making things happen on the ground.
Day two was not exclusively about Eden, as Rural Broadband Champions came from throughout Cumbria to talk about their priorities for the Cumbrian Rural Broadband pilot, which looks like it will bring about £10 to £15 million of Government money to help solve connectivity problems in the county’s rural communities. We heard from Barry Forde, the designer of the CLEO (Cumbria & Lancashire Education Online) network, about how there can be fibre cables in surprising places that might make it easier to connect rural locations than we might imagine, and we heard from Miles Mandleson and John Bevan about the Great Asby Broadband network, which is solving the connectivity issue in the host village, and working towards its objective to provide fibre to the home (FTTH) for all its residents.
At the end of the day, community representatives presented the results of their discussions about broadband needs in their area. These were powerful testimonies about their struggles to get the connectivity that many of us take for granted, and their determination to ensure the pilot is used as an opportunity to make a step change towards “future-proof” connections, not short term fixes that will be obsolete in a few years time. Rural communities need the sort of services (eg. Telehealth and Telecare) that next generation broadband can bring even more than their urban counterparts, and there is a strong feeling that the time is overdue to start delivering them.
I think the rural broadband pilots could be a real test for the Big Society. It is evident from Cumbria that there are community groups out there ready and willing to deliver community-based solutions to their local connectivity needs. As we heard, Great Asby Broadband is already doing it, but, there are also many other vested interests in the broadband world, including some very big corporations who might fight to secure Government subsidies for their own plans, which may or may nor fit in with community aspirations. If Big Society is about breaking through public bureaucracy in the interests of getting things done in the community, then, surely this must apply also to private vested interests where they stand in the way of local communities getting what is right for them.
The Cumbrian Rural Broadband Champions have spoken. Lets hope someone is listening.
Videos from the day
Rory Stewart MP introduces the day, and interviews Barry Forde
More from Barry Forde
Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband
John Bevan, Great Asby Broadband
Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband (again)
Mike Kiely & Robert Ling of Broadband Delivery UK
Simon Jones, Cisco
Nicky Getgood, Talk About Local
Questions and Answers
Feedback from Communities
Rory Stewart MP sums up