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Interesting meetings prompt a call for new models of neighbourhood governance….

I am speaking in a few days to a conference about next generation broadband. Super fast fibre optic broadband is now being marketed hard by BT and Virgin and there is the money top sliced from the BBC licence fee to assist with rollout. There are also some pioneering local schemes to get communities connected.  However there are several challenges.

There is a still a gap between public and private investment and the sums needed to connect up the country. The danger is we fall behind the rest of the world. Here for example is what Asian and Pacific countries were talking about the weekend before last .  This is not simply an issue of hardware or of the experience of consumers, the knowledge economy of the future will be built on a super fast platform. If such a platform does not exist in most parts of the UK our own content industries and business users will lack the incentive to develop products and processes which can exploit super-fast connectivity.

I was invited to speak by Malcolm Corbett, CEO of Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA). When he came to brief me he explained that his focus is on developing the models of finance and collaboration which enable communities – particularly in remote areas – to develop a social and business case to invest in super fast connection.

Then, this morning I chaired an event here at the RSA organised by EAGA the energy efficiency company. Eaga had commissioned a paper exploring how to increase individual and community take up of energy efficiency and micro generation. The feeling was that, while national policies like the feed-in tariff and the Green Deal are positive, they won’t be enough to make the scale of progress we need given that an estimated 14 million homes need investment to become energy efficient. Much discussion focussed on how to create vehicles for community investment in cheaper,  more sustainable energy.

These two conversations got me thinking. In the second half of the 19th century a group of civic leaders – people like Joseph Chamberlain - recognised the urgent need for investment in urban infrastructure. Not only was the result the wave of Victorian civil engineering and building which transformed transport, sanitation, housing and public space in our cities, but the emergence of modern municipal government.

Do we now need a similar revolution at the neighbourhood level? There have, of course, been lots of experiments with community level governance ranging from enhanced parish councils to the New Deal for Communities. Do we need to combine high profile participatory community governance with new models of finance and investment so that the driving purpose of community leadership and decision making is to increase investment, improve the public realm and thereby increase family wealth and well-being in neighbourhoods.

I know there are a variety of schemes already in existence such as community land trusts and also that there are many people who know a great deal more about this than me. But with opportunities like fast broadband, challenges like energy efficiency, the gaps that will be created by public service cuts, and the ideas and innovations emerging around the Big Society concept (see my last post) shouldn’t we be aiming for most parts of the UK to be benefiting from asset and investment based neighbourhood governance?


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