Question marks over Rory Stewart’s superfast vision of the “big society”

Under the banner of accountability, the coalition is laying waste to our public services.

Writing in the Observer on Sunday, Rory Stewart, former diplomat and now Tory MP for Penrith, describes how community activists in his constituency are co-operating to bring superfast broadband to the isolated hills of the Eden district in Cumbria – an area he says is in the vanguard of the "big society".

Stewart names some of the scattered enthusiasts behind the scheme:

Libby, in Kirkby Stephen, is photographing and mapping all existing telecoms cabinets. Freddy, in Morland, is exploring alternative technologies, from microwave transmitters and wireless hubs to laying fibre in sewers . . . Kate, in Stanwix, is training people to get online. Daniel, in Alston, is piloting medical tests from homes.

In other words, the project (it's been around for years but Stewart hopes it will now win government funding) is the work of an informal network of people, local in scale but not confined to one small village; indeed, "they came from 100 villages".

This isn't like a neighbourhood clubbing together to save the BS symbol par excellence, the local pub. No single village could provide all the expertise required to provide broadband for an entire region. Empowering the people most capable of making a difference isn't always the same thing as decentralisating decision-making as far from Westminster as possible.

Unfortunately, this isn't a lesson that fits in with the wider picture of government's attitude towards our public services.

Take the school sports fiasco, which forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn in December. The plan was to abolish School Sport Partnerships (SSPs) – which create links between state schools to enable children to play more sport – and leave the responsibility with schools.

Although Michael Gove branded SSPs inefficient, they do things that individual schools don't. They bring children from different schools together for competitive sports days and allow children to try out niche activities that their individual school couldn't provide. They represent money dedicated to sport which cash-strapped schools might rather spend on subjects more critical to the next Ofsted inspection.

Lots of people kicked up a fuss, and it became clear that the SSPs had increased participation in sport. The folly became obvious, and now at least some of the funding will remain in place.

But the rescue of one valuable programme from the bonfire shouldn't distract from the wider picture, which is one of whole levels of state organisation being stripped away with little thought for who will take over their responsibilities.

Storm warning

The announcement that the government's budget for flood defences is to be cut by 30 per cent – when it was already far short of the £1bn a year the Environment Agency says we should be spending – met with howls. To spend less on flood defences, when each pound spent saves an estimated eight down the line, is the definition of a false economy.

The problem isn't just underfunding, though. The idea of devolving responsibility for flood management to local councils is concerning in itself.

Natural disasters are unruly beasts that don't care about the boundary lines separating one local authority from another. Flood runoff can end up spoiling carpets far from where it breached the riverbanks.

Accordingly, the measures we take against flooding should not be confined to the very local, any more than they should be completely centralised: some planning must take place somewhere in the middle, on the scale of water tables and flood plains. It is difficult to model flooding on that scale, which means that local councils won't have the expertise or the money to do it.

After the disastrous floods of 2007, the government's Pitt Review recommended setting up "catchment floor management plans" to model flood risk for each river basin. The Environment Agency duly set up the plans, to be administered by the EA in each of England's nine regions.

Unfortunately, the English system of regional government was uncomfortably unaccountable and bureaucratic. Consequently, the entire system is being abolished by the coalition. This quiet upheaval leaves what has been described as a "black hole" in our planning system.

As for the question of who will be responsible for the aspects of contingency planning that local councils are not equipped to deal with . . . well, let's solve that problem when the water is lapping at the sandbags. Cut first, ask questions later.

Imagine if the government were to approach Cumbria's internet shortage in the same way. Instead of empowering the local networks that are ready and willing to provide the service, the response of the real-life government would be simple: ask each village council to cough up for the scheme out of its own (reduced) budget.

Local councils might not want to fund high-speed broadband, and individually they wouldn't be able to do so. Too bad – carry on living in the slow lane, Cumbria.

Demonstrating how community-based, collaborative, bottom-up governance can work is all very well, but doing so while laying waste to our existing public infrastructure takes the shine off that somewhat.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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