4G spectrum failure hardly surprising, but what is Ofcom playing at?

Nik Darlington 9.58am

When George Osborne said the Treasury would raise several billion pounds from the upcoming 4G auction, I along with many others feared (or even expected) that wouldn’t be the case. Some technical and financial reasons for why, but largely an informed hunch.

So it has come to pass. ‘Only’ £2.34 billion has been raised by Ofcom, despite the OBR’s forecast of £3.5 billion.

A couple of observations about the reporting of all this: first, £2.34 billion is still a useful fillip not to be sniffed at; and second, this mini embarrassment has given journalists a perfect excuse to ignore the good employment figures also released today.

Yet a mini embarrassment it is. Perhaps Mr Osborne should not have brandished an outcome ahead of time, but auctioneers tend to set target prices with little impact on bidding behaviour other than to focus it around said target. It isn’t a patch on Gordon Brown selling our gold reserves having already announced to the world his intention to do so.

On the subject of auctioneers, however, something odd happened on BBC Breakfast earlier today. Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive and unsuccessful candidate for BBC director-general (despite being the bookies’ favourite), was on talking about the auction. Mr Richards stated that Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was straightforwardly to hold a fair and proper auction and “ensure that a valuable economic resource was brought into productive commercial use”. Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was certainly not to maximise revenue.

Whether or not this was on instruction from the Government doesn’t matter. It is still odd. Tell auctioneers at Christie’s that the whole point is just to shift stuff and not to maximise revenues, you’ll be laughed out of the room. These are, as Mr Richards also said, “very different times” compared to the 3G spectrum auction, which raised £22 billion in 2000. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least have a go at it.

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The return of the Big Society is a positive sign for positive politics

Nik Darlington 11.12am

The Big Society has had its detractors, to put not too fine a point on it. Some have critiqued it intelligently; most have demonstrated laziness and inverted snobbery, led by a metropolitan elite to whom truly non-dependent communities are an alien concept.

Few champion the Big Society as strongly as those most involved in what it represents; and few individuals are so passionately weighed in behind it as the Tory MP for Penrith and the Borders, Rory Stewart.

In March last year, Rory wrote on these pages about how the ideas underpinning the Big Society - such as independence, communitarian spirit, responsibility, hard work - are transforming his patch of Cumbria, in areas such as affordable housing and super-fast broadband.

"The constant force behind all this - quite independent of government policy - is found in the communities themselves. It is they - not individuals, or businesses, or government, or even the voluntary sector (although these things are themselves important) - which constitute the Big Society. And these communities are defined by curiosity, ambition and a stubborn determination to succeed."

Yesterday, the Prime Minister launched the £600 million Big Society Capital fund, partly financed by money from dormant bank accounts, partly by Britain’s biggest banks, and aimed at boosting social enterprise. It is a theme we have covered heavily here at Egremont, particularly by Alexander Pannett here, here and, with me, here.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said:

"Big Society Capital is going to encourage charities and social enterprise to prove their business models - and then replicate them… [then] seek investment for expansion into the wider region and into the country.

This is a self-sustaining, independent market that’s going to help build the Big Society.”

As far as Mr Cameron’s pet project goes, the sun has got its hat on, and the Big Society’s got its capital letters back. It is a positive sign for positive politics.

And Rory Stewart builds on the ideas he introduced last year in an opinion piece for the Telegraph this morning, describing the “trench warfare” that has built the Big Society in Cumbria. It is a heart-warming read, and here are some choice extracts:

"The problem I found, when I became an MP in 2010, was not that communities did not work - they had always been working. It was that they were being prevented from doing much more. I found this in a dozen things, which might seem small from London, but which were key to rural lives: in communications, energy, housing, tourism (our largest earner), and broadband, which can hold the key to the success of rural health, education, and thousands of small businesses.

"We finally solved our problems when, instead of going completely independent, we made government and business work with our communities.

"None of this was easy… But we’ve succeeded - and not just in showing how the fastest broadband in Europe can go to the most remote valleys in Britain.

"The Big Society is not a fund, or a law - it’s an attitude, a way for government, firms and charities to use communities’ energy. It’s not something you can show on a PowerPoint presentation. But if you want to see how it works, come to Cumbria."

Give power and responsibility to local communities and see what the Big Society can do

Rory Stewart MP 8.04am

Many clever people have told me why the Big Society can’t work, won’t work, oughtn’t to work. Their criticisms can be so sophisticated and echo so many pre-existing assumptions, that I am almost embarrassed to point out that the Big Society does work. I have seen David and Crosby Ravensworth lay the foundations for their own affordable housing project; Libby and Upper Eden transform rural planning; Carl and Appleby launch a new hydro-power scheme; and Freddy and Morland begin to plan for the first large-scale community owned broadband in Europe. These are projects that would have been very difficult to imagine six months ago.

The constant force behind all this - quite independent of government policy - is found in the communities  themselves. It is they - not individuals, or businesses, or government, or even the voluntary sector (although these things are themselves important) - which constitute the Big Society. And these communities are defined by curiosity, ambition and a stubborn determination to succeed. I see it when 6,000 people in Penrith sign a petition to save the local cinema and then create a group on a Sunday afternoon, dividing seventy tasks between them. This is unmanufactured, clear, responsible and determined action. These communities pre-exist any government.

The Government’s role - its claim on the Big Society and the reason these things were not happening six months ago - cannot be quantified in money, or enshrined in legislation. The Government’s role is to provide endorsement - its legitimacy, if you like - to these communities. The Government should ask again and again one simple question: “Why not?”

"Why not allow the community to do what it wants?"

"Why can’t it build its own housing or bicycle path, or hydro-power scheme? Or decide what is built in the village? Or use its own muscle and ingenuity to get a much better, faster broadband connection than the Government could envisage or provide?"

"Why not?"

It is a simple, almost as if a child’s, question - with extraordinary effect. By some miracle, for all the controversy and confusion, the idea of the Big Society seems to have penetrated deeper and have had more appeal than anyone could have expected. Ask “why not?”, and someone from the Environment Agency tries a little harder to make a hydro scheme work; the housing trust shows the flexibility to take on a community bid; the county council officer is inspired to press once more to get round the state aid regulations and link the broadband project to the public fibre-optic cable that is already in the ground; and the planner thinks twice.

Of course, much of what the critics say is right. The success is based on very hard work in a single community: it cannot be simply replicated or taken to scale across the country. What works in Cumbria may not work in Liverpool. There are comedies and setbacks; disagreements, failures and frustrations. These communities sometimes need government money and technical support. Sometimes there are good reasons why communities should not have the final word: when the issue is too technical (take medical surgery, for example), or threatens the vulnerable, or affects national infrastructure (take railways).

But success is there: and beyond anything I imagined. What is remarkable is not that these communities need government money or technical advice, but how little they often seem to need: how often they fall back on their own resources, time or research.

How their passion, local knowledge and commitment can give them a power, a creativity and legitimacy that far exceeds that of any distant expert. Giving the freedom and support to do what they already want to do. And sometimes, creating the conditions for them to realise there was something else they wanted to do, which they had not yet acknowledged.

This enacted, village to village, residents across Cumbria show off the best of the Big Society.

Rory Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, having been elected in May 2010.

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