H&F still in the slow lane for Superfast Broadband

Last year I wrote about how 6,600 homes in Hammersmith and Fulham were denied Superfast Broadband (defined as a minimum speed of 30 Megabits per second).  The problem at the time was a petty dispute between the Council and BT Openreach over the correct amount to charge for the street works for cabling for the fibre broadband to the new Cabinets. That has now been resolved. Yet there remains problems in some areas.

For instance Cabinet 50 in Hammersmith (which covers Ravenscourt Place and part of Ravenscourt Road) has still been delayed. This is because it covers a relatively small number of households and so BT estimates it would struggle to recoup the cost from charging for the service (to such firms as Talk Talk and Sky as well as to BT’s own internet division.)

If Virgin had put down cable for their cable TV service that would provide an alternative. But they haven’t – at least not yet. Some streets have both service providing welcome competition. But I’m afraid that there are still too many with neither.

Meanwhile the Council has given contradictory messages about whether it could or would provide a subsidy via Section 106 payment to resolve the matter. But BT Openreach say they couldn’t take the money as it would break EU procurement rules on state aid. It is also rather confusing for the Council to be both demanding an extra charge for road works and then offering a handout to make the figures add up. During all this dithering and buck passing residents have been getting ever more exasperated.

Anyway the good news is that I understand Hammersmith BID, a group representing local businesses, have agreed to pick up the tab – £9,268 – for BT Openreach to go ahead for Cabinet 50. If confirmed it will still take them six months or so to do the work.

The Government have been pushing BT to get on with it. There was a target of 95 per cent of premises to be able to receive Superfast broadband by the end of last year. That was (just) reached. It is due to reach 98 per cent by 2020.  It is expected there will then be a “universal service obligation” so those who still have broadband speeds below 10 Megabits per second will have a “right to request” although if the cost of setting it up is above a certain amount they would have to pay.

One could understand it would be a bit tricky if you lived on the top of a hill in some remote area. But it is exasperating to have this trouble in Hammersmith and Fulham.

The website Think Broadband keeps track of progress by different areas. In Hammersmith and Fulham our Superfast Broadband coverage is 95.2 per cent. That is below the London average of 96.8 per cent.  Consider our neighbouring boroughs. Hounslow is 99.1 per cent. Wandsworth is 98.2 per cent. Kensington and Chelsea is 98.1 per cent. Brent is 98.2 per cent.

Why are thousands more of our households being left behind?

My colleague Cllr Mark Loveday has been pursuing the matter. He has asked for it to be brought before the Finance & Delivery Policy & Accountability Committee again due to the failure to make better progress. I hope that the Council agrees to the request and representatives from BT Openreach and Virgin will attend.

 

 

A new cafe for King Street

Talking to business owners in King Street I have been impressed by the good humour and resilience they have shown after the recent flooding.

Among those I went to see was Natig Mammadov, whose new cafe Laissez Faire – opened only last month. It is based at 198 King Street.

Natig moved to London three years ago from New York where he worked as a lawyer. He is originally from Azerbaijan now lives just across the river in Putney. The cafe was opened after an extensive renovation, with everything from the ceiling to the floor being torn out and rebuilt. The modern fresh décor of wooden tables and leather sofas makes it a great place to have a tea or coffee, as well as enjoy Natig’s favourite bits of French cuisine – baguettes, ham, cheese and pastries – all imported straight from France.

The choice of name reflects his devotion to free trade, free markets, personal liberty and classical liberalism.

Natig has plans to hang the artwork of local artists, which will be up for sale, on the walls of his coffee shop.

H&F Council named and shamed for delaying Business Rates relief

In the Budget in March this year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £300 million relief fund for Business Rates. The reason was that while the rates revaluation was revenue neutral, some firms were being hit by sharp increases. This scheme is to ease some of that burden. Most welcome. Straight away the figures were published as to how much funding was available to each local authority to pass on. All the local authorities had to do was to decide on the details for their discretionary scheme, adopt it and ask central government for the money. But many have been slow to get on with it.

Marcus Jones, the Minister for Local Government, told Parliament in September:

“The Government has been consistently clear that it expects local authorities to make rapid progress in helping business by implementing these relief schemes. Overall, however, despite various examples of good practice, the pace of providing relief to ratepayers has not been acceptable. I have written today to those authorities that have not fully implemented all three schemes asking them to rebill businesses that are set to benefit from relief as soon as possible.”

The Department for Communiities and Local Government publishes a list of “billing authorities that have confirmed to the Department for Communities & Local Government that they have begun rebilling for the three business rates relief schemes announced at spring Budget 2017.” There were 46 eligible councils that had not yet confirmed they had started rebilling for the discretionary scheme.

The list included Hammersmith and Fulham.

The Federation of Small Businesses is understandably exasperated:

It’s now nine months on from the announcement of emergency relief for those most harmed by April’s business rates revaluation. While some councils got on and distributed that help, others have been slower to take action.

“We are now down to the rump of 46 councils who have yet to lift a finger to help their local businesses. Among them are authorities with some of the largest fund allocations, including Hammersmith & Fulham, Nottingham and Northumberland, who have collectively been guaranteed £7.5 million in urgent support for the five years ahead.

“It’s completely unacceptable that small firms in these areas are being put in jeopardy by this lethargic attitude.

“FSB research shows that one in five small business owners were considering closing or selling their firm as a result of bill hikes. The support promised by the hardship fund could make the difference between business life and death for many in these 46 areas this Christmas.

“Before council offices have their parties and close for the festive break, we call on these 46 local councils to do the right thing and help businesses that are struggling this Christmas. Let’s get the 46 down to zero.”

The Council’s Cabinet did finally agree to adopt a scheme for this on November 6th. I suppose it will write to let the Government know in its own sweet time. I asked why it took us so long, given that the neighbouring borough or Kensington and Chelsea had sorted it out months ago. I was told it was because differences in the “decision making process” meant that K&C did not need Cabinet approval. Nonsense, of course. K&C also gave Cabinet approval – the difference was they approved it on April 27th. Hammersmith and Fulham Council, having been asleep at the wheel for eight months, then had the nerve to boast it had “secured” £4 million “to help local businesses”.

Councils will routinely issue virtue signalling proclamations about how they are “open for business” and all the rest of it. Yet many small firms have faced an extra strain on their cash flow due to needless delay in this relief being provided. It makes sense for some flexibility to be allowed – that is in the spirit of localism. But that is no excuse for the long delays seen in some areas. At least the transparency shown by the DCLG means we know who the culprits are.

Slow progress on Superfast Broadband rollout

I wrote in March about a petty dispute between BT and Hammersmith and Fulham Council which was delaying 6,600 homes in the borough gaining access to Superfast Broadband. It concerns how much to charge for street works and the disputed sum was only £4,000!

The Council’s Network Management, Transport and Highways has now written to say:

“I am writing to give you the latest update regarding the above issue further to my previous communications with you all. Some of you may already be aware from direct contact from Mr Campling of BT Openreach that HAUC England, the national body who represents the street and road works industry, have produced guidance on how highways authorities should treat the continued roll out of broadband.

“As you may recall we were in dispute with BT Openreach on how these works should be categorised and how they should be notified. I am pleased to say that the recently released guidance makes it clear where there are a high concentration of broadband cabinets in one area that they should be treated as major works, which is what we have been suggesting all along. The guidance also provides BT with some flexibility regarding notifying isolated cabinets as standard works, providing that all the electrical connection works are also carried out within the allowed 10day duration, which BT previously were unable to commit to. We will monitor this closely. If they fail to achieve all works within the 10 days then we will be permitted to also retrospectively treat these works as major works.

“I am pleased that National HAUC have produced this guidance in such a short space of time and it now allows us to work closely with BT Openreach on facilitating the quickest available deployment for these works. We have already been told that their operational team will be in contact with us shortly so I expect works on some sites will commence very soon.”

Absurd that this has taken so long. Often residents work from home. I don’t know what “very soon” means but I will keep pushing away….

Spear is helping H&F youths find work

There is a fantastic local charity called Resurgo Spear which helps the young unemployed find work. They have helped 4,000. Here is the story from just one of them:

Joe: “When I was 20 I weighed 23 stone. I was staying at home all the time and lying in bed until two in the afternoon. I really hated myself and what I’d become. Six months ago my my older brother told me straight to my face, “I wouldn’t employ you.” He is quite successful so that really broke my heart.

“I knew a change had to come. I’d never worked before and had no idea how to get a job. I went to the job centre and they handed me a Spear leaflet. It went straight to the bottom of the pile. I didn’t think it was for me. But a week later I got a phone call from Sam, who is the centre manager at Hammersmith, and he told me to come to see him for a chat. Just the thought that someone wanted me to come out of the house to meet them really helped me.

“Spear helped boost my confidence and think about what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t been out of the house for so long that I didn’t know where to start. I learnt about having a long-term mindset and the importance of communicating well, and I’m motivated now. Spear was definitely right for me and the programme gave me a positive mindset going in to work, as well as the skills to actually apply for jobs and be successful at interview.

“I started to go on a diet and six months later I’ve lost almost six stone. I’m now working as a Brand Promoter at Heathrow Airport. My family, including my brother, are all really proud of me now.”

One way to help this charity is with money. Another is with your time. For instance by becoming A mock interviewer:

“Mock Interviews are a key part of the Spear programme. Many young people on Spear have never had an interview before, so it’s a crucial experience to practise. Mock interviewers are volunteers from the local community – some are from businesses and others are individuals.

“The sessions take place every six weeks or so on a Friday afternoon from 3 – 5pm. Volunteers are welcome every time or as a one-off. A full briefing is given beforehand, though it helps if you have some experience of interviewing.”

Call for cash machines on council premises

An interesting proposal from Shaun Bailey, a London Assembly member and former Conservative candidate for Hammersmith regarding cash machines.

Shaun says:

“In the past two years, 40 bank branches have closed across the capital, making free withdrawals more difficult, while statistically many Londoners live more than one km from a free cash machine.

For many of us, the increased availability of card payment means this is often not an issue. But for elderly and disabled members of the community, getting access to cash can be very important.

Limited access to free ATMs also disproportionately affects lower income groups. On average, most cash machine fees charge £1.75 for a withdrawal but some can be as high as £5 or £10. Even at £1.75, a 17.5 per cent charge to withdraw £10 seems unfairly high.

He proposes a change to planning policies to “include suitable provision for free cash machines where necessary. Also to “promote the inclusion of free-to-use cash machines in public buildings.”

I have taken this up with Hammersmith and Fulham Council. My understanding is that the Council could also gain some useful revenue. This is because even when the customer isn’t charged the bank is. So firms will pay a fee to businesses (or other organisations) who host cash machines on their premises.

The Council’s Principal Business Investment Officer tells me:

“Departments have been asked to look at how the Council could include in the Local Plan or Supplementary Planning Guidance the requirement that master-planning for major developments should include suitable provision for free cash machines where necessary, and also classify free cash machines as ‘social infrastructure’ within the Local Plan, and CIL/s106 guidance.  

“This will assist the Council in working with local businesses, developers and public bodies to promote the inclusion of free-to-use cash machines in public buildings, and with the London Mayor work to ensure that there should be a free-to-use cash machine at where possible at London Underground, London Overground, TfL Rail, DLR stations and TfL property.”

An encouraging reply.

Slow rollout of Superfast Broadband in H&F due to petty dispute

Cllr Mark Loveday

The Council’s Finance and Delivery Policy and Accountability Committee last night included an item I had requested Superfast Broadband rollout across the borough and was attended by a representative from BT Openreach.

Given the high density of our borough we should be leading the way – yet we are below the London average. 94.3 per cent of our properties have access to Superfast Broadband in London overall it is 95.3 per cent.

BT Openreach had plans to roll it out to another 6,600 homes in Hammersmith and Fulham, which is in fact only 20 street cabinets. They have, however, formally suspended any further rollout as a result of a dispute with the Council. The dispute relates to the Council’s categorisation of the street works which are required to provide the cabling for the cabinets. This in turn depends on the interpretation of the New Roads and Street Works Act.

The Council says the works would be major works, which require a certain period of notice and a fee of £326, whilst Openreach say they are standard works, which would require a few days’ notice and a fee of £130. On non-traffic sensitive streets the fee difference is even less (£223 for major works and £75 for standard works). It therefore comes down to a monetary difference of less than £4,000 and a dispute about principle (which both sides say would set a precedent for other utility companies or for other boroughs).

The Committee expressed its frustration about the fact that 6,600 homes were going without access to fibre broadband because of this pretty pathetic dispute. Both sides agreed to talk about it further. More significantly, they both agreed with a suggestion from Cllr Mark Loveday that they should consider mediation if it could not be resolved quickly.