I very rarely get cross. Even when the bureaucracy is being particularly intractable, or opposing politicians particularly objectionable, I can usually rustle up a smile or at worst a resigned shrug.
But there is an exception – and it’s Openreach.
Ten days ago I spent forty minutes on the phone to Beverley at Openreach HQ, most of them on hold. It was the third number for Openreach I’d tried, having plumbed the depths of Google to find it, and I’d gamed the system by selecting options that sounded severe and urgent enough to warrant human attention.
A number of notices had sprung up in Witchford, I’d explained, advising that communications poles were going to be installed by Openreach. The notices advised that this fact was going to be communicated to ‘Ely Council Planning Department’, and that anyone who had a problem with that could write to a postal address in Liverpool.
The correct planning authority, East Cambridgeshire District Council, had not in fact been notified, as is Openreach’s obligation in law. Nor was Openreach responding to East Cambridgeshire District Council’s enquiries on the matter. Indeed, Openreach had reportedly been telling residents with concerns about the installations that it was the duty of their parish council to consult the public on the proposals. This would have been a little difficult, firstly because the parish council had not been notified about the installations either, and secondly because it has no responsibility for telecommunications infrastructure.
The forty minutes on hold proved fruitless, as Beverley could find no-one with the remotest inkling what might be going on in Witchford. Beverley was very sorry, but the only way to address the matter, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, was indeed to write a letter, put a stamp on it, find a postbox, and send it on its way to an address in Liverpool off the road to Bootle. I suspect company procedure hasn’t changed much since the days of writing to say that the post-chaise had been held up by highwaymen.
And it was even worse, explained Beverley, because at the moment due to COVID-19 all the post was having to be gathered up, opened, scanned, and then sent to someone’s home to be answered.
There was, however, thought Beverley, a ray of hope. It may be that the poles were something to do with their Community Fibre team, who were so far sighted and visionary that they had gone out on a limb and procured themselves an email address. It was unlikely, I thought, but worth a punt, so an email message was fired off in their general direction ten days ago.
Today, the email was opened, and the inevitable reply came back. No, it’s nothing to do with us, but if you want to you can put all your concerns on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, stick the appropriate stamp on it, find a postbox, and send it with thoughts and prayers to the sixth floor of the building off the Bootle road.
Frankly, it is outrageous that a company the size of Openreach, which is responsible for such a significant part of the nation’s vital infrastructure, should be so completely dismissive of the public as to refuse to allow people reasonable means of communication; and that it should be so dismissive of the local authorities whom it is supposed to inform of proposed installations that it doesn’t inform them, fails to answer planning officers’ communications, dumps the resulting community unrest on the public authorities, and simply regards itself as above any form of engagement with anyone except presumably its shareholders.
In the days when I thought I might be quite interested in being a Member of Parliament, I used to wonder if elected what my first entry would be in the ballot for introducing new laws through Private Members’ Bills. That ship has sailed, but I am in no doubt now what my Private Members’ Bill would be. It would make it absolutely illegal, on pain of eye-watering fines followed by public ritual disembowelment for the Chairman and the Chief Finance Officer, for any company responsible for the provision of any aspect of the nation’s infrastructure to hide away from the public behind a postal address, and fail to provide a working telephone number and customer email address and sufficient staff to answer both of them promptly.
Looking at you, Openreach.