The recent run of storms across the south of England has closed Devon and Cornwall’s rail connection out of the region: not only has the main line collapsed into the sea at Dawlish but now the Exeter to Waterloo line is also shut. With another storm in progress today and a further one due next Wednesday we do not yet know what the final bill for repairing the damage and meeting the consequential losses will be.
Before all this, the Economist had highlighted further West Country woes - we are one of only two regions in the country where unemployment is still rising. This is thought to be because as the UK economy recovered over the past two years more people resumed their habit of holidaying abroad rather than here. The recent publicity of the ‘Devon and Cornwall are cut off!’ variety is unlikely to offer much of a boost for visitor numbers in 2014.
Meanwhile, of course, the government pushes on as quickly as it can with its investment in London’s Crossrail scheme and with plans for HS2. Both of these costly schemes will contribute substantially to the already booming London economy. HS2 may benefit Birmingham, Manchester and other connected cities but it’s clear where the major benefit will be felt. Yet both of these schemes are going ahead assisted by a generous contribution from the taxpayers of Devon and Cornwall.
A good, reliable and universal broadband network would be of great benefit to business at the present time but that we don’t have and there is now growing discontentment in the region with the slow progress and lack of information being provided by the taxpayer-funded Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) operation to bring so-called superfast broadband to the region; similar complaints are still heard about the longer-established Superfast Cornwall. It is clear that government backed broadband improvement schemes are bringing substantial benefits to BT’s shareholders (the share price is up nearly 50 per cent over the past year) but complaints are growing about the lack of information BT and CDS are providing about the ‘where and when’: who will benefit from these schemes, when will the improvements arrive?
In both Cornwall and Devon/Somerset it appears likely that ten per cent of properties will not receive a ‘superfast’ service but nobody is willing to say where those excluded properties will be. If that was known, locals could make alternative arrangements, just as South Hams Broadband have been trying to do in the Thurlestone, South Huish and South Milton parishes, yet this is an initiative that BT and CDS seem keen to kill off. They clearly don’t like the idea of a better scheme than their own being held up in comparison to their halfway-house (fibre to the cabinet rather than fibre to the building) efforts.
At last it appears that there is growing anger about the attitude of BT and CDS to this (see Rural broadband roll-out gagging order row); these complaints led to an editorial in the Western Morning News this week:
“If communities are likely to be in the so called ‘final 10%’ of hard to reach areas this will then enable them to apply for funding to come up with their own schemes to overcome obstacles in their locality. The wall of silence they are currently meeting is denying them this opportunity and creating unnecessary frustration and uncertainty.”
When it comes to arguments over regional policy, it sometimes seems from here as though the country is divided into ‘London and the South East’ and ‘the North’. The economies of Devon and Cornwall very rarely feature and perhaps in consequence the direct and indirect impact of the storms are made far worse by long-term underinvestment in our transport infrastructure which has been pretty much ignored since Isambard Kingdom Brunel built his bridge over the Tamar. In the twenty first century a relatively inexpensive way of overcoming our region’s isolation is through a fast broadband network. But most areas of the region do not have access to that and do not know if and when it will arrive.
Never mind Scottish independence: I’m sure Devon, Cornwall and Somerset would be better off running their own affairs. Referendum, anyone?