Free connectivity? What? For everyone? Don’t be ridiculous.
Posted on January 26, 2021
A hundred years ago in December 2019, we had a general election. The principal issue was Brexit – which seems to be going swimmingly, by the way – and the Labour party’s complete confusion on the issue cost it dear.
Depending on which narrative you choose to believe, a pressurised Jeremy Corbyn, spotting the writing on the wall, either formulated an imaginative plan for a vital social provision, or desperately plucked an idea from the line of optics in the last chance saloon. It did him no good. It was so obviously stupid, impractical and, above all, ridiculously expensive.
Every home, he suggested, should have high-speed, full fibre broadband and…..wait for it….it should be free. Oh, how his detractors hugged themselves with unbridled delight: he’d clearly fallen off the edge of reason. The Daily Express gleefully shrieked that ‘reckless Corbyn’ fully deserved the universal derision coming from Tory MPs who were asking whether the woolly old veg-digger had ever considered the cost of this. Nicky Morgan, who has gone on to enhance her political career by leaps and bounds – oh, no, wait a minute – sneered about his blinkered disregard for how this would ‘cost hard working tax payers billions of pounds’. The estimated bill would be in the region of some £20.3 billion. Madness.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, in his sober and measured way, calmly recognised the importance of the issue and pledged to bring forward a full commercial roll out from 2033 to 2025. How he must have chortled contentedly to himself. Free broadband! As if.
It’s just over a year since the last of the scoffing died down. If anyone thought that broadband access wasn’t a priority before the election, they’ll have been disabused of that notion by now. As one of the indices of inequality, it’s up there near the top – and nowhere is this more acutely obvious than in terms of education.
Steve Chalke is the founder of the Oasis Academy chain of schools and, to be honest, I wouldn’t imagine that we could ever be chums, despite the fact that both of us have spent decades trying to improve the life chances of children through education. But I cheered his radio interview to the rafters this morning when he suggested that having a child living in a home without good broadband access is akin to living in one without electricity or water. For the avoidance of doubt, should you harbour the notion that Steve Chalke is some bohemian sprite, riding the waves of liberal free-thinking, just give him a quick google.
Inequality is now the hallmark of the pandemic, markedly so in a highly developed economy like ours. Education should be able to act as a leveller. We can leave aside the nonsensical discourse about children having to ‘catch up’; learning is neither a race nor a competitive sport. However, we are now certain of one thing: even in these straitened circumstances, a child has a better chance of learning something if s/he has space, some support from people with the time to provide it and – not just in times of pandemic – access to a decent digital device with an affordable broadband service to make it work.
Johnson and his party made a commitment to levelling up those parts of society that had been left behind and who were angry and resentful as a consequence. Let’s suspend our disbelief for long enough to accommodate the idea that the party of self-help and blame was ever committed to such a pledge. If it’s still on the to-do list, then this week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will have given them a further, shocking jolt. Put simply, if you work in poor conditions for low wages in jobs that that can’t be done from home, you’re five times more likely to become infected with the virus than if you work from your house. And you’re more likely to be able to work from your house if your digital connection is strong, reliable and affordable so that you can work while your children get access to some lessons at the same time.
And if, just if, that astronomical £20 billion had been shelled out for this apparently barmy scheme, how much of a dent would that have made in the national budget? According to figures from the ONS and the National Audit Office, projected government borrowing for the financial year from April 2020 should have been around £55 billion. Covid has made those figures look ridiculous and the current projection is now nearer £350 billion. The cost to the economy has been massive; the cost to our general health and welfare, especially that of our children, may yet be inestimable unless the drifting and u-turning comes to a halt.
So, why would we decide to pay £20 billion for a national asset that could help to educate our children, enable greener working practices, keep people safer and also end up with a significant piece of digital infrastructure? Of all the hare-brained schemes, that one’s right up there, isn’t it? Yep. Completely reckless.