Digital Placemaking — 10 steps for cities to boost connectivity

Note: This ‘Digital Place’ post follows from previous posts on digital transformation describing Camden’s journey, digital devolution and how to scale change in digital transformation.

High quality internet and mobile access (‘connectivity’) is now recognised as the ‘fifth utility’ alongside water, electricity, transport and gas.

Connectivity is vital for the digital economy and how people access content, products and services. We are coming to expect the internet to be ‘always on’ inside and outside of the home on devices we carry with us — and certainly see it as inconvenient that blackspots exist in areas where we shop or do our work.

Businesses primarily reliant on the internet see connectivity as a fundamental need — others will increasingly do so as ways of buying, selling and advertising online apply to their industries.

Here I suggest that cities have an important practical role in enhancing connectivity and therefore meeting the expectations of citizens and promoting growth. I don’t suggest the steps below (largely drawn from my experience in Camden) represent the sum total of what authorities can do, after all, local circumstances will vary according to needs and resources. But it serves as an illustration of how councils can make their own weather by setting more permissive policies — rather than considering connectivity as out of their hands or otherwise reliant on external investment.

Ten questions

Each section is followed by a simple question anyone — a councillor, business or resident — can ask their authority to improve connectivity.

First: a forward-looking Digital Place framework

Camden’s Digital Strategy published in 2014 had as one of its priorities to extend high quality, next generation internet connectivity across Camden. This was driven by the perception that Camden businesses in particular were not ‘future-proofed’ and the authority needed to do more. Other leading digital authorities have done the same — notably Greenwich, Manchester.

Later this year we hope to express this ambition in our corporate plan — Camden Plan — already some authorities do, e.g. Bournemouth’s corporate objective to be a “smart and connected city.”

Adopting a strong Digital Place ambition allows public servants to adopt a more permissive approach to technology, and approaches from the private sector. As ever, ambitions should be followed by implementation plans which can be subject to scrutiny from the public and the business community.

Digital Place will also vary in emphasis because of the different priorities of each authority. Ealing council’s scrutiny into Digital Services discussed three Strategic Objectives on Digital Place with a strong emphasis on inclusion:

  • To use Council’s powers and influence to provide fast and effective digital infrastructure for residents, businesses and visitors.
  • To explore how to exploit digital technology to make the borough a better place.
  • To seek to eliminate digital exclusion by providing digital skills and access to digital services.

Looking at Scotland, Wales, London or Combined Authorities (where newly directly-elected Mayors will be in post from May 2017), there is a clear role for Chief Digital Officers in digital placemaking.

So, the first questions are:

  1. Has your local authority, combined authority or devolved administration set a clear plan for connectivity? How is this expressed?

Planning Policy and Guidance

The next policy consideration is how digital ambitions are expressed in planning policy.

Local Development Plans guide planning decisions so are vital reassurance to infrastructure providers that applications are both welcome and there is consistent process.

At the moment planning policy is fragmented across the country and across regions. it is important that there is more consistency — as more citizens use more devices and infrastructures become smarter, the pressures on digital capacity grow.

To the outside world linking economic needs within a permissive planning framework should be common sense — but this is not the full story. Planning policy brings together a range of wants and needs — from environmental (e.g. trees, air quality), land use, a special designations (conservation areas) as well as land uses, and regeneration and growth ambitions. In short, some decisions around digital connectivity involve trade-offs with other priorities.

Each area may express these priorities in different ways, for example, Camden’s provides for the following steer:

· The local plan recognises the importance of digital infrastructure in meeting the needs of the growing number of residents, workers and visitors.

· High speed digital connectivity is identified as among the key infrastructure needed to support Camden’s growth and actions identified in the Council’s Digital Strategy.

The Plan has an “expectation” of the provision of high speed digital infrastructure in all employment developments, but following the adoption of the Local Plan Camden will be updating the Planning Guidance supplementary documents. This will include specific guidance on integrating digital infrastructure into developments.

A recent comparison with neighbouring boroughs reveals Haringey’s draft Local Plan expects development to be designed to facilitate delivery of high speed broadband technology and make improvements in areas of poor broadband connectivity. Westminster, Islington and the City of London do not appear to have specific policies on digital infrastructure in their local plans, with general infrastructure / telecoms policies.

The London Plan includes a policy on ‘encouraging a connected economy’ which looks to facilitate the provision of ICT infrastructure across London.

However, it seems clear further guidance is needed. In my opinion this should be a major (if not an early) responsibility of anyone who holds a Chief Digital Officer post regionally — their responsibility should be to draw together and analysing all planning guidance governing digital infrastructure from different towns, districts and boroughs.

2. What does your authority’s planning statement say about digital infrastructure? How does it compare to others and is it sufficiently flexible to adapt to new technologies?

Fibre connections

Here local authority officers have a role to engaging with major operators to improve digital connectivity through, e.g. increasing the number of fibre connections, understanding and meeting SME demand through infrastructure improvements. Inavriably this will include various council functions working together (economic regeneration, transport, public realm).

Purchasing the right product can be a challenging exercise — and with some justification operators argue that SMEs often do not buy the right product for their business, leading to complaints about upload/download speeds later on. Local authorities, perhaps in conjunction with Business Improvement Districts and operators could have a role in customer education.

3. Does the authority have an effective mechanism to understand concerns about fibre connections and a joined-up way of resolving any issues?

Wayleave

Wayleave is the right-of-way granted by the landowner to lay pipes/telecommunications inside of building or development (i.e. where someone else has a legal interest). Lack of way leave arrangements have been cited as the reason why buildings are not digitally-enabled.

Recently authorities have been simplifying the often complex process for network operators and developers looking to make digital infrastructure improvements. A new streamlined wayleave agreement template now forms part of a digital infrastructure toolkit developed by the City of London for Central London Forward.

4. What approach does your authority have towards wayleaves?

Public wifi

In addition to free internet/wifi access in Camden’s 300 public computers in libraries and public buildings, Camden led a collaborative effort, involving 17 other local authorities, to let a concessionary contract designed to make better economic use of council owned assets and improve wireless network connectivity for the borough.

Residents, businesses and visitors are currently able to access 30 minutes free (hopefully soon to be all free) wifi every day using registered devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.

The deployment of 4G small cells in the borough will help to ensure Camden’s residents, businesses and visitors have access to the best mobile network experience available and address network congestion and coverage issues within the borough, helping more people stay connected.

The contract with provides substantial financial incentives and income generated for the Council over the 10 year life of the contract will be used to support digital innovation in local firms and tackle digital exclusion. The service is now available in high streets across the borough.

5. What steps has your authority taken to promote public wifi?

Kiosks

Payphones are a blight on the public realm of town centres up and down the country. Superseded by the rise of the mobile phone, currently many payphones stand idle, are unsanitary or used for drug-taking. Many councils have worked with operators to remove payphones, with limited degrees of success.

LinkUK from BT is one initiative to replace unloved old payphones with new, digitally-enabled kiosks.

The fibre connected kiosks will provide several functions, including ultrafast wifi, fast mobile phone charging and the next generation tablet based Internet/telephone access to citizens, including free UK calls. They will also be ‘smart’, with embedded sensors to collect data — e.g. noise or air pollution.

Kiosks and all its functions will be free to citizens and funded by digital advertising. These may pose planning and transport considerations around accepted policy on removing street clutter, so how policy is kept flexible to allow innovation is an important consideration. Nevertheless, town centres up and down the country will benefit from this kind of investment, supplementing existing public wifi offers and reducing redundant street clutter.

6. Has your council looked into kiosk/payphone replacement?

Small Cells

Small cell technology will be used to provide in-building and outdoor wireless service in preparation for the roll-out of 5G. Mobile operators use them to extend their service coverage and/or increase network capacity especially in areas of high footfall. Public authorities will be able to embed new capacity in lamposts etc.

7. What steps is the council taking to prepare for small cell technology and 5G roll-out?

‘Digital Rooftops’

Local authorities are usually the owners of more high buildings than any other owner in their area. Because Camden council is a large landlord, it owns the freehold to around 60 buildings of 8 stories or over. Leasing rooftop space to mobile and wireless broadband connectivity to provide alternative internet access to local businesses and residents. In addition to connectivity benefits, this has generated over £0.5M of income to be re-invested into housing and will enable free wifi to tenant halls.

Although billed a ‘masts’, connectivity is provided by much less obtrusive boxes, which impact on amenity far less than previous structures.

8. Has your authority considered this opportunity? What steps can be taken to ease the process, e.g. standard leases and community engagement about benefits?

Wired Housing Estates

Connectivity can also be built into existing capital works. Camden has a big building programme and currently is in the planning stages of a project to provide fibre links into Camden housing estates. The project would see suppliers install fibre optic broadband links into estates at no cost to the council with the capacity to deliver services to residents at competitive costs. Packages would be available with speeds of up to 1Gbps.

In addition to improving digital inclusivity in the borough for low income households, the council would be expecting to make savings on current broadband connections as well as providing capacity for more innovative connectivity projects in the future (e.g. installing heat meters across Camden estates etc).

9. Is connectivity opportunity part of the capital programme of councils or other partner housing providers?

Final thoughts

Notwithstanding legitimate arguments over investment from the Whitehall or operators, what I’ve set out above shows that Town Halls currently have a range governance powers to take promote connectivity in various forms.

10. Do it — connectivity and Digital Place should be a key component of what councils do — why not start asking?

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Theo Blackwell is Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden. Theo was 2014 LGIU Digital Champion of the Year and winner of the Sandy-Bruce Lockhart scholarship in 2015 for work on digital transformation. Camden’s Digital Strategy won the borough the MJ Digital City of the Year in 2015. He is a Policy Fellow at Public Group Ltd. and sits on the Advisory Board of Digital Leaders.