The superfast lane to nowheresville

Are we focusing on the wrong sort of connectivity?

Policy Exchange has a new report out today, and I'm not going to lie, my attention was piqued by the pun-tastic title, The Superfast and the Furious, because, wow.

Anyway, it makes a number of interesting recommendations, mostly going against the trend in recent years for promoting the spread of so-called "superfast" broadband – usually delivered by fibre-optic cables, and largely confined to dense built-up areas.

Instead, the authors, Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink, argue that the government should refocus on helping the people who remain offline, since:

Whether or not the UK has the fastest superfast broadband relative to other countries is a redundant question.

There has always been a target of delivering broadband of at least 2Mbps to the 10 per cent of houses which won't be able to get superfast broadband, and in fact, it's that target which the report suggests may need to be recalibrated. It points out that setting an absolute level of what constitutes "acceptable" broadband speed is foolhardy: when the target was set, 2Mbps was fast; now it's the minimum requirement to use iPlayer, a standard technology; tomorrow it may be too slow to do other things which we have come to expect as standard. One option they propose instead is to track "broadband poverty", identifying the number of houses where the best broadband option is a certain percentage below the median.

The report is an important counter to the prevailing trend in internet policy, which seems to be driven a bit too much by the fact that superfast broadband is cool, while replacing miles of copper wire with slightly better copper wire in rural Cumbria isn't. After all, the leap from no internet to some is far greater than the leap from fast to superfast – and the damage caused by having none at all is real and concerning. A recent Oxford University study found that "there are substantial educational advantages in teenagers being able to access the internet at home", for instance, while the report itself cites the fact that small businesses which "embrace" the internet grow "substantially faster" than those which remain offline.

But the thing which the report misses is that there's a second priority which ought to be key for the government to press for, and that's reliability. The authors pass this off as a matter for competition:

For the general public, broadband price and reliability matter as much as raw speed, and the optimal trade-off will vary from home to home and over time. The best way through is to let the market balance different needs, which in turn requires effective competition between providers.

I'm not so sure that's correct. Advertised reliability is certainly something which providers compete on, but due to the stickiness of the market, it appears that they rarely need to live up to those promises.

Increasingly, uptime, rather than speed, is the limit to wider adoption of the "internet economy" which Yiu and Fink are so keen to trumpet (citing figures which show that around eight per cent of UK GDP is due to the internet); the fear, or experience, of a connection failure can lead to understandable reluctance to make too many operations dependent on the net. This is true of a number of hoped-for internet driven productivity enhancements. Consider telecommuting, for example. Anyone who has experienced multiple-day outages will know the fear that one could happen when crucial work is riding on it.

The question is whether more reliable connections can be achieved through the market alone. I have my doubts. The market for high-speed internet only really became competitive once bogus claims were cracked down on by the ASA – but providers have steered clear of making similarly testable claims about connection stability. And switching companies remains such a hassle that it exerts a massive drag on the efficiency of competition to motivate anything.

Still, we must hope for a b++++DROPPED CONNECTION++++

A car drives fast. This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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