Rory’s Speech on Rural Broadband


I honour the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for giving a good defence of many of the good elements of the big society, and a good warning on some of its dangers. Much of the debate, however, reminds me of sitting in a room with a group of philosophers looking at some bird and explaining why the bird cannot fly. Again and again, I come to these debates and hear people say, “The big society cannot work, because people do not want to take responsibility”—I take the point from the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) about people not wanting to save a child from a pond—or they say, “It cannot work, because they do not have the resources or expertise”, or they say, “It ought not to work, because if these communities were trusted, they would do the wrong thing.” So there are three kinds of argument: communities do not want to do this stuff; they cannot do this stuff, because of cuts; and they ought not to do this stuff, because they will do something irresponsible. For example, in debates on planning, we hear again and again that communities left to their own devices would build a concrete jungle or act as nimbys and block all development.

There are many good points here. The Opposition are making many good points. The big society is not a replacement for everything; it is not a silver bullet or a panacea. We need a state. I will list three of the many things for which a state is very important. First, we need a state where there are issues of expertise. For example, brain surgery is best left to the state, not a community. Secondly, where massive resources and big strategic decisions are required, such as in the building of highways or high-speed rail networks, things are best left to the state, not individual communities. Finally—this is where I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham—the state is important when it comes to the protection of the vulnerable. Our democracy is based not just on majority representation, but on the protection of minority rights, and for that a state is very important.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that some communities might not want to do these things, despite the fact that some cannot do these things, and despite the fact that some might make the wrong decisions, big society is a wonderful thing. To those philosophers who say that this bird cannot fly, I say that it does fly. They should come to Cumbria or go in fact to any constituency. As was pointed out in an intervention, we can all see again and again exactly what big society is about. It is not about the state; it is not even about the voluntary sector, although it does a wonderful job; and it is not about individuals or businesses. It is about communities and community action.

Why does it work? Why, if someone comes to Cumbria, can they see in Crosby Ravensworth a better affordable housing project built by a community than would have been built by the county council on its own? Why, if someone comes to Kirkby Stephen, can they see a really smart neighbourhood plan—not one pushing for a concrete jungle or a nimby objection to any development, but one sensitive to the vulnerable and imaginative in how it does its development? And why, if someone comes to Appleby, can they see wonderful renewable energy projects? It is because those projects are different from those done by the state in exactly the three ways I mentioned—in the degree of knowledge, in scale and in their relationship to the risk to the vulnerable.

These are projects in which communities have a competitive advantage over the state because local knowledge matters in those projects. It is very important to live in a place in order to produce a really good plan for that place. The people who live there know about the place and care about it. They come up with creative solutions, street by street, on where to place a school, on how much housing to allow and on who will live in the affordable houses and where they will be located.

It also really matters that people care about these projects. Communities want their children to have a house in a way that a distant expert does not. Finally, although it is difficult to quantify, I think that all of us—as politicians, as opposed to civil servants—understand the will and the desire in communities to make things work in a way that a distant expert might not.
This debate should be familiar to the Opposition. There is a very distinguished tradition on the left of believing in people, of not being pessimistic about them, and of not being over-optimistic about technocratic, centralised expertise. There is a tradition of understanding that there is of course a place for the state, but that there is also a place for the community, and that that does not just involve mowing the lawns. A patronising idea is sometimes expressed that communities can be trusted to do only small, limited things.

In Cumbria, we bang on about what we have done with broadband because it is an example of communities, not the state, delivering a highly technical, highly challenging engineering project for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time that the state would have taken. That has happened because the parish can ask people to do things in a way that the state cannot. The parish can ask communities to take out loans to pay for some of their own broadband, it can ask farmers to waive their way leave in order to get the fibre optic cable to the houses, and it can ask the church to put the transmitter on its roof. In that way, the price can be reduced fivefold. And this is just the beginning.
There should be a resonance between both sides of the House over our scepticism of expertise, and over our understanding that there are forms of knowledge, not theoretical knowledge, but “knowledge of how”—“capacity knowledge”, forms of caring, of will and of desire that are not a replacement for the state but that, in the right place and the right circumstances, can achieve miracles.

All the points that hon. Members will make in this debate are true. They will be worried that a project might not be sustainable, or that it has not been the subject of sufficient research or strategic planning. They might also worry about whether it would fit into a global planning framework. All those objections are important and valid. Nevertheless, to return to the bird that I mentioned earlier, some people will stare at it and try to analyse it anatomically, wondering how it will ever get off the ground. I say to them: “Come to Cumbria and see the bird fly.”

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): In listening to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), I had great difficulty in finding any connection between what he was saying and the subject of the debate. He cited three splendid initiatives, but presumably they all took place under the last Labour Government.

Rory Stewart: They are three examples from the big society vanguard project in the Eden district of Cumbria, initiated by this Government, and the hon. Gentleman is very welcome to come and see them.

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