Thank you to all who attended the dent Parish Council AGM on 7th April. I attended as a member of the public as I don’t reside in the Parish and so was unable to speak but it was quite clear there was no need for me to do so! I am told that there was a greater turnout from the community than anyone has seen before and the strength of feeling was very evident when the subject turned to Broadband for the community.
From the outset it was good that the Chairman acknowledged the importance of super-fast broadband as the 4th utility and that Fibre GarDen “was doing an excellent job“. The meeting was attended by Alan Cook, Senior Program Manager for the Connecting Cumbria Project who had been invited to present to the meeting. Not surprisingly, many of his comments we would agree with, we were particularly pleased that he placed social digital inclusion so high on his list. By doing so, he was arguing that it is important that everyone receives the same coverage to give them the same social and economic opportunities. This is exactly what we have been working towards – to ensure that all members of our community receive superfast broadband irrespective of where they live. It is unfortunate that despite this excellent objective, not all of Cumbria will receive the same coverage and we know (and have blogged about this) that Garsdale will not receive any BT investment and that only the area immediately around Dent will benefit from the BT investment in Dentdale. Alan repeatedly referred to the scope of the project which will cover 93% of Cumbria. Unfortunately, I think those present knew full well that this did not include our communities and were unimpressed by the statistic. Neither was the announcement of an additional £17m received from central government of note because there is no sign that it will be invested to provide superfast (24mbps) into deep rural communities. Amongst those present were people who have worked in telecommunications and who swiftly dismissed the offering of emerging technologies
Alan eventually reached the core of the matter which is that Connecting Cumbria Project hold a contract with BT for this area, which includes the use of public funds. These can only be used once in an area for the same purpose and therefore in order for the Fibre GarDen project to proceed using public money, a de-scoping exercise need to be undertaken that will remove the use of public funds in this area from the Connecting Cumbria Project. He made it clear that Fibre GarDen “are doing a fantastic job” and are “very professional” so that the de-scoping exercise is no reflection on Fibre GarDen. The County Council needs to be confident that Fibre GarDen is sustainable and will evaluate the two contracts (BT and Fibre GarDen) to decide on the most reliable service (This prompted a lot of comment from the floor about the poor service experienced from BT and that BT had just been named as the telecommunications company with the worst customer service record!). In the event that the Council decide this then an impact assessment would be required to be undertaken by BT at modest cost to the Council. The initial decision would be taken in June and the result of any impact assessment would be presented to Cumbria County Council for a decision by its Members, probably in September.
Alan Cook made it clear on several occasions that the Council has absolute right to veto any decision to release public funds to Fibre GarDen and stated that it was a condition of the funding award made by DEFRA. This is factually incorrect. Amongst the many conditions placed on that award, this was not one of them.
It is fair to say that this information caused considerable frustration, even more so when Alan made it clear that he would not receive any communication from residents, that the matter was entirely policy driven through an assessment of the contracts and that only he would determine the timeframe of seeking an impact assessment from BT. The fact that the decision took no account of the quality of service (fibre to every home) caused further frustration and disappointment and the Meeting urged those present to write to Tim Farron supporting Fibre GarDen and to ensure the right decision was made.
Perhaps it is inevitable that there were some things I was disappointed with. Alan Cook said that work was ongoing with Fibre Garden and that he was in regular communication with us. What he failed to say is that he has consistently refused to answer our emails about which procedures and policies are being used to make an evaluation of the Fibre GarDen project. This was consistent with the fact that he was unable to answer the challenge that Cumbria County Council is no longer independent in its decision-making because it has already entered into a contract with BT.
It is very clear that the next battle we face is a political one! This really is an area where we would value support from the community and the more community members that write to express their views about the importance of superfast broadband, their scepticism about the contract which has been awarded to BT and who challenge the decision-making process within Connecting Cumbria, the better. The greatest risk we face is that because we are an isolated community which is a long way away from County offices in Carlisle, we will be dismissed as irrelevant and forgotten. If you wish to write, the following email addresses may prove useful:
Alan Cook – Alan.Cook@cumbria.gov.uk Senior Program Manager for the Connecting Cumbria Project
Gillian Elliott – firstname.lastname@example.org Alan Cook reports to her
Tim Farron – email@example.com MP for Dentdale and Garsdale
Councillor Nick Cotton Nicholas.Cotton@cumbria.gov.uk Lib Dem South Lakeland
Councillor Stewart Young, CCC – Stewart.Young@cumbria.gov.uk Leader of Labour Party in the Council
Councillor Jo Stephenson, CCC Conservative – Jo.Stephenson@cumbria.gov.uk Leader of Conservative Party in the Council
Councillor Ian Stewart, CCC Lib Dem – Ian.Stewart@cumbria.gov.uk Leader of Lib Dem Party in the Council
But above all – thank you so much for all your support!