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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.