How hard can it be, bringing fibre optic to the estate and our neighbours? Pretty blooming hard as it turns out. Going through the process of negotiating with BT Openreach, establishing a community of neighbours who want fibre-optic and are prepared to pay for it, managing the application process, negotiating the terms and finalising the deal has taught me quite a bit about the challenges of private-public collaboration and even more about the community we live in.
It seems to me we have lost the art of pulling together for a common cause. Most of our neighbours live in cottages that in the old days would have housed estate workers or villagers who, every year, would have joined in the harvest. Year in, year out the community around estates would have come together, helped their neighbours to get stuff done; barns built, fruit picked, preserves preserved for the benefit of all. Since mechanisation and industrialisation that’s all stopped and most of us tuck ourselves away in our homes and just get on with our lives. Neighbours become strangers and we barely see those who live nearby, let alone help each other. When we hosted the community meeting to talk about making this Community Broadband Application it was horrifying how few of us knew anyone else in the room.
I am so, so tempted to go into detail about every stage of the Community Broadband Application that St Clere led. Our amazing Secretary to the Trustees, Sue, spent days and days, maybe even weeks on it. It is properly boring though, so I’m going to resist. One element, however, is worth telling, brace yourself for some (very) basic maths. At the beginning of the application I asked all the neighbours if I had their authority to go ahead on the basis I could deliver the project for less than, let’s pretend it was £100 per house. St Clere would pay for each house on the estate which was approximately 50% of the houses in the application. Anybody who committed to this was included on the application. Six months later, once negotiations concluded we were in an interesting position. We had managed to get a deal whereby if everybody who had committed to £100 or less stuck with their word and made their contribution, the amount per house would be less than £50. But if anyone pulled out the cost of the project remained the same but would have to be divided by one less house, so the amount per house went up. If a group of people pulled out it would very quickly go above £100 per property.
This is where my harvesting point comes in. If we were in the habit of grafting together and trusting each other and being proud to do our bit in the community it should all have been so easy. And many of our neighbours made it as easy as they possibly could. But the interesting bit was those who didn’t. Some were sceptical (“why is St Clere doing this? what’s in it for you? can I see the St Clere Estate accounts before I agree to anything?”). Others just didn’t get round to paying their share (until Sue tracked them down). Some were just takers (“ the fibre optic is coming past my door anyway if this project goes ahead, even if I don’t make my contribution I can sign up for broadband later for next to nothing”). And one, Mr X, just simply refused to pay and then served us with a GDPR request as he was (wrongly) worried we might have told the neighbours the name of those who hadn’t paid their share. On the end date it didn’t look good, we were at more than £100 per property and I took the decision to go ahead anyway, and pay the difference.
But since that day, one by one, Sue has persuaded every single person to pull together to harvest this fibre optic. Well, everyone except for Mr X obviously. The contract with Openreach is signed, we’re going to be able to reimburse our neighbours some of their contribution and within 8 months our entire community will feel the benefit of future-proofed broadband. It’ll be especially satisfying knowing it’s something that we all did together and I hope that bodes well for the future of our community.