THE TRENCH WARFARE THAT BUILT THE BIG SOCIETY
Article first published in the Daily Telegraph on 4 April 2012.
I am that strange creature: a believer in the Big Society. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has not given up on it – despite all the criticism – but has returned to it this week; that the Localism Act is being implemented; and that the £600 million Big Society Capital fund was launched yesterday.
What makes me so keen? What I have experienced living in Cumbria. Here, we have found that Big Society can’t be reduced to new laws, or money: it is about attitudes. Big Society means forcing government and companies to bend to the will of communities, and their imagination, their values, and their energy.
The problem I found, when I became an MP in 2010, was not that communities did not work – they had always been working. It was that they were being prevented from doing much more. I found this in a dozen things, which might seem small from London, but which were the key to rural lives: in communications, energy, housing, tourism (our largest earner), and broadband, which can hold the key to the success of rural health, education, and thousands of small businesses.
Ravonstonedale wasn’t allowed to hire a contractor to build a cycle path. Appleby was blocked from installing a hydro-electric scheme. Morland wasn’t permitted to clear out its own mill race after the floods. Crosby Ravensworth couldn’t build the affordable housing it wanted. And none of us could get decent broadband.
We had tried to solve these things on our own, and we had failed. Ten years ago, the government spent £20 million on broadband in Cumbria: the results were pathetic. So instead of paying BT £50 a metre to dig in fibre-optic cable, we dug the trenches ourselves, installed our own equipment, and looked at connecting directly to Manchester. It didn’t go well. I enjoyed digging a trench in a frosty field in Warcop – but it wasn’t flat or straight enough. One enthusiast went within an inch of breaking a high-pressure gas line. Businessmen and public servants, who paid for their own system, were unable to get commercial services; when it collapsed, they were left with no phone line.
We finally solved our problems when, instead of going completely independent, we made government and business work with our communities. Being a Big Society project meant that two civil servants, Anton Draper and Mike Kiely, travelled up to Cumbria from London week after week. They helped us secure some public money (much less than it would have cost the government without community help, but money none the less). And we used this promise of government cash to make companies compete, to prove what they could do for our villages.
Suddenly, firms showed us what we had not seen before – how they could deliver broadband with slivers of glass, with copper, with mobile cells, with TV signals, with power cables, with satellites. And in return, when the Government or a company said there was a problem, we solved it. When they said there wasn’t demand, our volunteers visited more than 1,000 houses, and convinced 70 per cent of them to pay for better broadband. When they said they couldn’t afford to pay landowners to run cables through their fields, their neighbours convinced the farmers to drop the charge. When quotes for digging were too high, we convinced local digger drivers to lay cable to the highest standard, for a very low cost. And for the first time, we convinced BT and others that if we did all this work, they should connect us free of charge to their existing network.
None of this was easy. Government had to learn how to redesign £550 million worth of broadband contracts nationwide in ways that include community projects – and to get round European “state aid” rules. There was a moment when Cumbria county council was suggesting that every community should be treated the same, regardless of how much work they had done. This would have stopped them from ever supporting the project – just at the time when we need their ingenuity, and support, more than ever. Companies, too, had to learn to be equally flexible.
But we’ve succeeded – and not just in showing how the fastest broadband in Europe can go to the most remote valleys in Britain. We have been able to achieve everything we set out to do two years ago, from the cycle path to the mill race. If central government had tried to force social housing into Crosby Ravensworth, there would have been rage. But because the community has driven it, there are now 20 affordable homes in the village centre – cheap, attractive to live in, supported by the community and beautiful.
The Big Society is not a fund, or a law – it’s an attitude, a way for government, firms and charities to use communities’ energy. It’s not something you can show on a PowerPoint presentation. But if you want to see how it works, come to Cumbria.