Holkham estate says better Norfolk broadband could inspire ‘rural revival’

The Holkham estate has signed up for the EDP-backed Say Yes to Better Broadband campaign in the hope of inspiring a rural revival among its disused industrial buildings.

Back in its agricultural heyday, Longlands would have been a bustling hive of industry in the engine room of one of Norfolk's most prestigious country estates.

Hundreds of workers would have toiled in the joinery, the wheelwright's workshop, the forge and the plant room, where the steam engine which used to power the whole complex now lies dormant.

Now, a century later, this collection of largely-redundant Victorian buildings and barns is awaiting the opportunity to make a commercial comeback.

But, like so many similar sites across the county, there's one thing preventing this rural revival: The lack of a decent broadband connection.

Overseen by a dramatic Venetian-style clock tower, the courtyard should make a stunning location for business, set in the sweeping green acres surrounding the Earl of Leicester's ancestral home of Holkham Hall.

But although the Holkham estate has spent more than �50,000 on new roofing and floors in order to attract modern industry, slow internet connections are still constraining the long-term viability of the site.

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Estate owner Viscount Coke said: 'The ambition is to have a hub of local small businesses here which are employing local people in a rural setting. We hear so much about unemployment in rural areas and part of the vision of Holkham is to support a thriving local community through sustainable development.

'A lot of work has been done in tidying it up to make it attractive to people, but we are finding that broadband is as great a need here as a decent electricity connection.'

Lord Coke said he supported the Say Yes to Better Broadband campaign to ensure Norfolk had the same opportunities as other areas of the country.

'I have friends who have similar estates in the Thames Valley or beside the A1 and, because they are next to towns and cities like Leeds or Bradford, they have managed to turn their old buildings into offices and attract people out of those cities to work in beautiful locations in the countryside,' he said. 'We want that to happen here.'

The 25,000-acre Holkham estate is one of the largest employers in north Norfolk, with more than 350 people working there during peak summer months.

Having diversified from its traditional reliance on agriculture, it now faces daily battles with technology to maintain communications with its sparsely-spread portfolio of tourism, retail and property development businesses.

Estates director David Horton-Fawkes said the poor access to high-speed broadband was restricting the estate's ability to attract commercial tenants and create new jobs.

He said: 'Longlands could be a microcosm of what we want to create around Holkham. There would have been hundreds of people working here in the past, and that could happen again.

'That's exactly what we are about, to recreate and re-establish the rural model. But the internet connection here is miserable. When you look at the viability options for re-use, broadband is considered on the same level as electricity and running water in terms of its importance to all modern businesses.'

Longlands currently contains a scattering of independent companies, as well as housing the estate's property maintenance team, its linseed paints business and Holkham Forge.

Blacksmith James Spedding said the technological drawbacks were felt just as keenly in traditional industries as in high-tech sectors.

'Because we are so geographically remote, the internet is our main means of communication,' he said. 'But, of an evening, you frequently only get dial-up speeds, which means you cannot listen to the radio or get TV on demand, while putting files on your Facebook page of putting posts on your blog takes forever. The potential for this site is amazing, but how can you run a rural businesses without access to the rest of the world?'

Broadband campaigner Marie Strong, Norfolk county councillor for Wells division, met Lord Coke and Mr Horton-Fawkes yesterday to discuss the estate's internet issues.

The previous evening, she had attended a meeting of nearby Barsham Parish Council, where the Say Yes campaign had received a warm welcome from frustrated internet users.

'There was a real enthusiasm for it,' she said. 'So much so, that they are going to go house-to-house with the details, asking people to sign up. They get an appalling service in that area, whether it is the individuals wanting to contact their families or a number of small businesses.'

The Better Broadband for Norfolk project aims to bring superfast 30Mbps download speeds to as much of the county as possible and a useable minimum of 2Mbps for everyone by 2015.

Although �30m of public funding has already been made available, the Say Yes campaign, run jointly by the EDP and Norfolk County Council, aims to prove the commercial demand which will attract private investment to the scheme. Norfolk residents and businesses can sign up online at www.norfolk.gov.uk/sayyesnorfolk, or by calling 0344 800 8023. A direct link to the registration website is available in the 'related links' section at the top right of this page.

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