Management > CIO

Camden’s Blackwell outlines need for council connectivity leadership

Neil Merrett Published 03 February 2017

Authorities have important role to consider how physical infrastructure and estates can be managed to better support citizens and business to interact online


City and local authorities have an important role to play in enhancing online connectivity as a vital piece of infrastructure to support smartplace plans and service innovation for citizens and business, Theo Blackwell, Camden Council’s Cabinet member for finance, technology and growth has said.

In a blog post published today, Blackwell detailed Camden’s intentions to expand high quality connection across the borough in its upcoming corporate plan as a means to better future proof business operations and drive innovation this year. The strategy is expected to follow in the footsteps of other authorities, such as Bournemouth, which have set out a locally focused corporate objective to be a smart, 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,” Blackwell argued.

“As ever, ambitions should be followed by implementation plans which can be subject to scrutiny from the public and the business community.”

Blackwell noted that regional chief digital officers, or individuals in equivalent roles at a council, should be responsible for bringing together and analysing planning guidance linked to digital infrastructure from town, district and borough authorities.

He also played up the need for local authority officers to engage with suppliers in areas such as improving fibre connections.

In wider support of this work, Blackwell claimed that authorities have been looking at simplifying the wayleave process that determines how pipes and telecommunications support can be implemented into buildings.

He claimed that the City of London Corporation had devised a new wayleave agreement template to support authorities with digital infrastructure planning.

At a wider level, while the needs of local authorities regarding priorities for connectivity and smart city initiatives will vary, Blackwell argued that town halls had a range of powers to undertake initiatives to support online access.

These included public wi-fi provision, whereby Camden had worked with 17 authorities around a concessionary contract to make better economic use of council-owned assets and improve connectivity.

Other potential initiatives highlighted by Blackwell that are available to authorities include replacing traditional paythones with multi-functional kiosks. One ecample was BT’s LinkUK initiative that provides fast phone charging, ultrafast wi-fi and tablet-based internet and telephone access to UK citizens.

“Kiosks and all its functions will be free to citizens and funded by digital advertising,” he said. “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 wi-fi offers and reducing redundant street clutter.”

In addition, Blackwell noted that small cell technology was being implemented to provide expanded wireless service, with potential for physical infrastructure like lampposts to also support extra capacity.  Camden has also opted to lease rooftop space on its buildings to mobile and wireless broadband provision

As an extension of this focus, Blackwell also noted the options for wiring and connectivity being built in housing estates such as through fibre optic broadband links.

“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,” he said.

Smart city development

The role of local authorities in supporting and planning out smart city initiatives was among the topics covered at the Socitm conference held in Milton Keynes in October as part of considerations on connectivity and supporting innovative services.

Jos Creese - a former Socitm president and ongoing associate director who is now with Eduserv -  said he believed  there was a role for local government in stimulating more forward planning of how smart technologies can underpin initiatives to better incorporate data and infrastructure.

Creese argued that realising this would allow for commercial value to be realised.

“So local authorities don’t have to make all the investment themselves, but I do think they have to make that investment have commercial value and [they] can do so,” he said.  “I also think there is a need for a degree of regulations and standards here, both in terms of public trust about the data collected from everyone and also in the way it can be connected.”

Related articles:

Revised Industrial Strategy targets data and digital infrastructure overhaul

Milton Keynes: more evidence needed to drive smart city investment

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