Thursday, 13 May 2010

Broadband Scrutiny Review - Update

You may recall that back in March I reported that Rugby Borough Council had decided not to undertake a scrutiny review into the availability of high speed broadband in the rural areas of the borough. This was a suggestion I had made in response to their request in February for issues of local concern that would benefit from a detailed review by the Borough Council.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Rugby's Scrutiny and Policy Officer setting out in detail the reasons why the Council had decided not to undertake a scrutiny review into this issue.

This is the letter:

Thank you for submitting Shilton Parish Council's interesting proposal for an overview and scrutiny review on access to high speed broadband in rural communities. The members considered a record 33 proposals and reducing these to a manageable shortlist was a challenging task. I have to inform you that your proposal was not selected for inclusion in the scrutiny programme in 2010/11.

The members noted that the issue of slow speeds and non-availability of broadband in rural and many urban areas across the country was currently being addressed through the Broadband Service Commitment. They felt that a national rather than a local approach would in the first instance be most appropriate, and a local scrutiny study would duplicate much of this. In the meantime,
Virgin and BT are known to be doing some work to make improvements in individual areas, and I am sure local councillors will do all they can to act as spokespeople for their areas.

This is as far as the members' discussion of the matter went. However, I would add that, after the completion of the present phase of the national assessment of 'not-spots', it might be worth looking at this subject again. The funding of the national initiative to improve coverage will presumably continue to be problematic, and - given the dire prospects for public funding - this will be no less the case at local authority level. However, if the businesses that will benefit believe there is a good business case for putting up the money themselves, all may not be lost.

You might therefore consider resubmitting your proposal next year, possibly focusing on local initiatives. I would warn, however, that there will still be no guarantee that a case can be made for a scrutiny review. The uneven availability and speed of broadband may be a matter of public concern, but it would be hard to argue that high speed broadband is necessary for social networking and the types of communication with and by the council that are mentioned in support of your proposal. (Admittedly, though, no broadband at all is a different matter.)

In the meantime, there may be work that interested parish councils can do in their localities, for example by gathering evidence so that local businesses would regard putting money into a wireless scheme as a sound investment and, indeed, by co-ordinating schemes funded this way.

Thank you again for your suggestion. We rely on involvement from outside organisations and individuals to keep our overview and scrutiny work relevant to local people's needs and concerns, and I hope you will not be deterred from making other suggestions in future.

I'm grateful to Rugby BC's Scrutiny Office for this considered response but, regrettably, don't entirely share their confidence that the private sector alone can be relied upon to meet the demand in rural areas for highspeed broadband provision.

I shall blog again within the next week on my more detailed response to the issues raised in this letter and the way I think things could evolve for rural broadband provision.

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