Finding Fareham’s fibre

With the long lockdown, the calamities and the clapping, the confusions and cracks exposed, some things became blindingly obvious. These things may well have been obvious before – but only with Covid 19 did we really ‘get it’. Now we have a list of urgent actions. Stuff that must not be forgotten. Stuff that must be remedied.

I wonder what’s top of your list. Hands up if you found working from home easy? Keep them up if your broadband was brilliant – no lag on the line, rapid downloads and uploads, smooth video calls with great audio – and the doctor available for remote consultation at the touch of a button.

TV news may well have done more than anyone to show up the weaknesses in the UK’s broadband – the oddly distorted voices, the long gaps and nodding heads, the sudden picture freezing, the collapsing conference call – but, when they got their act together, the brilliant multi-player synchronised productions.

To work properly the networks need fibre – but we knew that back in 1990 when the Tory government barred BT’s plan so as to not queer the pitch for CableTV providers from the USA or Murdoch’s SatelliteTV. Most of the UK’s franchises for Cable have now ended up with Virgin Media (VM). Meanwhile BT has soldiered on with its old copper network. Both BT and VM have done their best to deliver broadband – but both now recognise that taking fibre only as far as their street cabinets is nowhere near broadband enough.

BT’s Superfast fibre was never super, fast, or fibre if the signals must be squeezed through old copper pairs to reach your home. VM faired only slightly better because their copper coaxial cables from the cabinets were a little shorter and able to carry faster signals, leastways in one direction. But both BT’s FTTC and VM’s Cable are still outpaced by ‘Full Fibre’ to your home or office.

Fibre is the foundation for building a better community and its local economy. We can wish for future resilience and greater well-being but without fibre the local fabric will not hang together.

So how can Fareham get Full Fibre?

The good news is that it can be found. The bad news is that it cannot be found everywhere – and it costs a lot. If you really want Full Fibre broadband at a reasonable price, you should move to villages in rural Lancashire where properly engineered very fast 2-way 1000Mb/s low latency services will cost just £30 per month.

So why not here? Because we’ve not been bothered to demand better. Because it’s not been a priority. Because we left it to the market. Because we didn’t think it important – until we really desperately needed it. But we are not alone. The UK’s fibre network is way behind others because of a lack of investment. Far better, they thought, to squeeze that last drop of profit from old copper cables before giving customers a really useful service.

As in so many Covidised quarters, the time for excuses is over. The time for being led by markets that have only short-term profit interests has passed. The time for sleeping on the job and not being fully aware of citizen and business needs has ended. Top of my list is a campaign to bring Full Fibre investment to Fareham without any further delay.

Time to extract the digital

The laser light of Covid-19 has pinpoint accuracy. It also has a surprisingly therapeutic effect – it stimulates imaginations.

For decades now we have looked with envy at modern parliamentary design and the transforming impact of digital technologies. Electronic voting, presentation facilities, scope for remote inputs, easier debate management and greater citizen engagement – all these capacities serve democracy well but they shine particularly brightly under the spotlight of the current crisis.

Even in Westminster, a rapid fix to allow MPs to work from home showed what might be possible with a digital makeover. It was, of course, far from perfect and exposed many weaknesses – chiefly poor connectivity and a lack of digital dexterity. But it also exposed a harsher truth. The normal reliance on the baying mob to drown voices of opposition was briefly absent and may perhaps have raised the level of debate. This digital dalliance has been all too brief. Having demonstrated what might be possible, the Tory Leader of the House wants the bear pit to return, bringing back oral conflict and amateur dramatics in the cause of misrepresentation of the people.

Meanwhile locally, here in Fareham, the democratic response to Covid-19 has been muted. There was never much debate and even less engagement with community members. Decisions were never exactly behind closed doors but discussed by very few voices. Who knew that we could now all watch the debate and see the planners’ slides at last week’s Planning Committee meeting? And residents making deputations about particular plans were not able to speak, but had their statements read out by a member of staff.

Council officers worked hard to enable even that limited debate when physical meetings are impossible – but they had been let down before they started by years of failure to invest in digital democracy.

Ten-year old children online to their teachers might have fared better than their digitally disconnected parents – but also, for far too many, the complexity, quality and costs of decent broadband have also been barriers to engagement in a town that used to be in the forefront of technical developemnts.. Fortunately the spotlight of imagination is not only highlighting our failures but also giving us a glimpse of a brighter future, which we’ll discuss in a later article..

Owning the future?

Creating & Sustaining Thriving Communities

When the Covid door closes, when lockdown is unlocked, when partying has passed, what then? There will be no ‘ getting back to normal’ , not least because what was once familiar is already history, daring never to be repeated.

Many are determined that life during lockdown should be a learning experience. The disruption, the unexpected time gained by enforced closedowns, should not be wasted. Books and baking, gardening and grieving, DIY and doing something else for others: with unwelcome, unexpected, events, have we ever been busier? But these times of daily doom-scrolling will surely pass. The future ‘whatever’ will become a new normal.

It is not wishful thinking or idle curiosity to spend time thinking ahead. Much of our present predicament reflects a lack of reasoned foresight and preparedness – but ‘learning the lessons’ need not mean indulging in bitter rounds of blame and shame. We must, surely, ‘ rise to play a greater part’ – not least because we have a choice, even if local democracy is, apparently, temporarily suspended.

Thinking through choices for our future is a real test of awareness. Priorities and perspectives may range from ‘saving the planet’ to ‘saving my job’, from ‘working together’ to ‘falling apart’. We could passively accept greater central command or strive to choose priorities uniquely suited to our local community needs.

In one of the most exhaustive studies currently calling for attention (and, for sure, umpteen others are in the pipeline) the future options are categorized as ‘Good, Bad, or Ugly’. The work Owning The Future? by The Democracy Collaborative and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) is not for the faint-hearted – 20 full pages of text – but should be required reading for anyone who leans towards leading.

The least attractive scenario (‘Ugly’) – extreme nationalism – is already discredited by UK- wide polling that rejects the busted Brexit bravado. The scenario categorised as ‘Bad’ assumes a continuing determination to abdicate leadership to market forces with minimal regulatory ‘interference’ to maximise private gain. Finally, a ‘Good’ outcome would bid farewell to exceptional aspirations of national supremacy and see a rebalancing of central & local governance to enable more resilient, sustainable and thriving, local communities.

Even before we are ‘unlocked’, a great many minds are open to considering the lessons learned. ‘Owning The Future’ is just one of many attempts to analyse our future options. Download the full report and add your comments below this article. For too long now, prevailing political forces have outsourced leadership to markets driven entirely by private gain – but, with a new post-Covid appreciation of social values, there is huge scope for municipal enterprise, particularly if social ventures chime with the planetary climate challenge – a destination even more predictable than the current pandemic.

New need for social housing

The immense grief for lives lost in this pandemic will have impacts on many aspects of life and endeavour. Far from any return to normal, the new normality must respect those whose lives have been lost – and many other losses. Jobs, Opportunities, Education, Health, are just some of many missing ingredients that will affect all families.

The readjustments and reconstruction will take a great deal of time and effort.

When we rebuild local and national life, our new priorities must surely reflect those aspects of the old normal that have been so cruelly and embarrassingly exposed. “When the tide goes out, you can see who has been swimming naked”. Government, national and local, should see this as an opportunity to change course – to have licence to correct some attitudes that were stuck in the past.

One major policy area long overdue for a complete rethink is Social Housing. The economic downturn will turn the spotlight on housing affordability. The old 1980 attitudes that killed council investment in social housing will need to be revisited.

For more than three decades, the dominant theme of housing policy has been encouragement of home ownership. Now is the time to look at the results – major housing shortages, unaffordable prices, reduced social mobility, child poverty and homelessness.

Any Council that decides to buck this trend – to reinstate local housing investment for local families – will deservedly earn praise from a community learning to cope with life after the pandemic.

We reflect on the silent sadness all around, but Easter is surely a time for renewal, for hope, for a better future for all our families. Our Easter wishes to our community is taken from the words of FR Scott: ‘We rise, to play a greater part’.

Planning Priorities: time to rethink

The timetable for approving Fareham’s Local Plan will have to be re-assessed. With most of life and endeavour currently on hold, the only certainty is that plans will change once the plague has passed.

The urgent and very necessary responses needed to combat COVID-19 have ensured that there will be no ‘getting back to normal’ – leastways, it will be some new kind of normality.

I believe the pre-pandemic timetable for our Local Plan must be changed for three reasons.

Firstly, the priorities demanded by Westminster will, inevitably, be changed. Almost certainly priorities for Health, Housing, Education and Economic reconstruction will need to be reviewed. It may be expected that infrastructure priorities will be redefined, with Roads and Rail investments seeming less vital than transition to full fibre connectivity.

Secondly, the case for greener planning has shifted beyond debate. The pattern of economic stimulus applied after the 2008 global crash cannot be replicated. Public investments will, this time around, demand public return – and that means far more than job recreation. The investment justifications must also demand pro-active support for commercial efforts to combat climate change.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Local Plan as it stands has no democratic mandate. If the May 2020 local elections had gone ahead our communities would have known exactly what they were voting for. In earlier commentary we had questioned the adequacy of Local Plan consultation. In the post-pandemic rebuilding of the UK we will campaign for far greater devolution of authority to Local Authorities – a shift away from the over-centralisation of recent decades.

It will take some time for our country and communities to recover. We should certainly not crash on with any Local Plan based on old ideas without the support of local people.

This is Fareham in 2020.

3,700 of our local children (nearly 1 in 5) are living in poverty.

That may be better than the UK average but still grim.

No ifs and no buts. This has been created by Tory policies.  They have no shame.

According to the Social Metrics Commission, nationally 14.3 million people in the UK are now in poverty and more than four million people are trapped in deep poverty. Seven million people, including 2.3 million children, are affected by what it terms as “persistent poverty”. An estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are in poverty as a result of benefits cuts and high rents. (source: ByLine Times).

What can you do about it? You can vote Liberal Democrat in May’s local elections. Fareham Libdems fought for and won funding for a second homelessness outreach worker in the borough. Liberal Democrats care and take action.

That’s Why They Call It The Blues

There’s no denying the entrenched Conservative devotion of our parliamentary constituency but in contrast to their large gains elsewhere, Fareham folk bucked the trend, with the Lib Dem vote more than doubling.

The marginal growth (0.7%) in the Tory share of the vote was underwhelming given that they must surely have benefited from former UKIP voters (2.7% in 2017) who this time had no Brexit Party candidate to absorb their anti-EU angst.

Certainly not all former Labour supporters shifted to Green or Yellow – our gains together (9.1%) well exceeded Labour’s 7.1% loss – and some of these gains surely came from the Tory ranks. 

The overall result was entirely as expected – the Conservative majority for Fareham remained about equal to the number of voters who chose not to vote.  Allied to the feedback from our engagement with the community the shifts do, however, reflect a very high regard for the Libdems’ work within Fareham Borough Council.

Whatever happens in national politics, our communities will need to find a way through diktats from Whitehall.  Across Fareham’s local communities we take heart that we have a growing number of folk with their feet on the ground and the good sense to curb the Cons.

Note also that, at last, growing awareness of the climate crisis is beginning to be reflected in voting patterns.  The doubling in the Lib Dem vote came after Fareham Lib Dem councillors “walked the walk” by introducing a Climate Emergencey motion adopted by the Council, and there was also a small increase in the Green vote.

This General Election coincided with a Spring Tide.  Regardless of Whitehall’s lobby-constrained incapacities, our coastal communities know very well that major shifts in all our lives will be needed.