Six Villages Hyperfast

A community-led project to deliver Gigabit broadband to your neighbourhood


This was penned by Christine Conder - one of the founders of B4RN back in 2011 - on how she started the original project in the Lune valley.

I have been thinking all day about how to write this email!

I have sent you our official B4RN documents, but your specific request was for me as a farmer's wife to give you some info to help deal with other farmers and wayleaves.

Right, by way of introduction this is a short film I made in 2010 or thereabouts for a competition (I didn't win). It shows our farm so it proves I am a real person and this isn't a made up email.

Around 2000 with foot and mouth etc, we realised we had to get the internet to our farm. Dial up was sort of available but patchy and you couldn't make phone calls at the same time. We added another phone line for it but even that didn't really help. We had no mobiles in those days either. We bought a fax machine to get our info to defra. It was a nightmare. We were in an exclusion zone and movements were restricted.

We ended up building a wifi network for all the farms and businesses in our valley, eventually 29 properties connected. This was very successful and we took advantage of being able to do things online. There wasn't much in those days, not like it is now though.

There was no need for wayleaves for this network, as it went through the air, and the lucky farmers who hosted the transmitters (for free) had the best connection direct to the antennas. We all paid the same as the others though. The farmers hosting the antenna and mesh boxes meant we could reach other families and businesses, who helped make it a viable little network. We all did it as volunteers.

Around 2005 some bright spark invented youtube, and iPlayer, and video killed our network, and we had to get a better feed into it. 
We managed to do this through the local university for a research project. 
The full diary of it is still online for proof. and we ended up going from 2mbps symmetrical to 30mbps.

Anyway, then we found in 2009 that two of our customers kept losing connection. We had raised the antenna on their houses a few times, but some trees in between were blocking the signal. The farmer next door wouldn't cut the trees, so we had to come up with a solution. I had been working with lots of other community groups throughout the country, and the solution had to be fibre.

On a monday morning we just decided to do it. JFDI. Just Farmers Doing IT.

We got hold of some fibre, and a moleplough, and we just dug from my farm to their house. 1.2km. I made a film about that too.

That film was made for the Rural Broadband conference at Rheged.

It proved that it wasn't rocket science, and that farmers who knew their land and had the tools could build it themselves. This was the start of B4RN. In those days the farmers dug their own land and got paid £1.50 a metre to do it. Nowadays it is contractors who do it as most farmers are too busy, but they can still dig their own land if they are prepared to be trained (it isn't difficult but more fussy than water pipe)

The reason I am telling you all this is not to claim credit myself, but to tell you about the very first issue we had with wayleaves, and why it is important never to ask a farmer for wayleave. I talked to the people in the house for weeks about how to get them connected with fibre. I costed it out and they were happy to buy the kit/fibre/rent plough etc. I already knew who to get to help. I knew my husband would help. I knew where to get the kit to light the fibre at each end.  On that monday morning looking at a pile of ironing something just snapped and I made the calls and it all happened that day.

Then came the tricky bit.The house owner was a solicitor. He was paying for it all. He asked if we (the farmers whose land it went through) would sign a 'wayleave' if he drew one up. I had never given a thought to wayleaves, as it was our land and I was instigating it all.

My husband helped as much as he could and was all for helping the neighbours.

The solicitor wrote a wayleave and gave it to us to read.

My husband had a fit. There was no way he would sign it. It was many pages. Solicitors always write many pages. If we wanted unbiased advice as to what we were signing it would cost us money. So he said no. And once a farmer says no, there is no way you will change his mind. I knew I could do nothing. So the best advice is not to ask a question that is yes or no... (solution to follow, be patient)

The reason for all this information is to explain why the B4RN wayleave is so different from what farmers and legal people think is a wayleave.

The fibredig in 2009 was the proof needed that farmers could do it. Barry (the genius behind B4RN) and all us community volunteers got together and we ended up with the birth of the project.

In the early days, the areas we worked were so desperate for a connection the farmers were all up for it and a handshake did the job. The farmers dug it in themselves, or paid a local contractor and claimed £1.50 a metre back from B4RN. Some made a profit, some a loss, but the duct was laid. Then as we moved to other areas equally badly served we had to get through farms/estates who already had a BT connection that worked, and farms who insisted they would never want a connection. One or two would ask if they would be paid to let the duct through their land. We have never, ever paid, it is not in our business plan at all, because if we did not only would it be an admin nightmare because many let it a few metres through their gardens but it would increase the price of our service and we have to keep the price as low as we can, as many areas where we work are very poor.

It is a very lucky farmer who has chance to agree to a route through his land, as that makes his own install possible. It is a very lucky village whose farmers let the fibre get to them. The villagers make up the customer base that finances the connection to the farmer. We have some villages (pre voucher days) who have raised money to dig 3 miles up a mountain to connect a farmer and that is just a single duct to him, it doesn't go anywhere else. They would not have done that if they didn't realise how beholden the whole project is to other farmers who let it get to them. By the community, for the community.

We wrote a wayleave on the back of an envelope.

We couldn't afford a solicitor, but we ran it past one 'off the cuff'. The main reason for wanting one was to protect the farmers, not B4RN. We couldn't afford to have one written, as all our money went on duct and fibre, and nobody was paid. We were all volunteers (for the first three years)

The last paragraph in the wayleave is the most important one, and it is legally binding. (B4RN can never be changed from a community owned company. It can't be sold. The rules are written in stone. If anything ever happens to B4RN and a big telco takes it over then everyone who has a wayleave can claim money from the new company). That is why it is crucial for the landowners to sign it and why B4RN insist they are all in place before final plans can be drawn up. Only the farmers/tenants/landowners can approve the finished plans. Over the following years as we got staff and B4RN turned professional we have had the wayleave checked out properly, but because of that first experience with my husband we knew we would never succeed with what most solicitors class as a wayleave. (they go down the easement route which is totally different). We knew farmers wouldn't countenance a multipage document. We knew if they took such a document to a solicitor or land agent they would be faced with charges. We also know as farmers that land agents get a percentage of any rates they negotiate, and so they would insist the farmer gets something. What the farmer gets is far more important than money. So that is why our wayleave is very plain and common sense, and the legally binding bit will hopefully never be needed. That is also why it is kept to one page of common sense.

I hope that makes sense?

The trick with farmers, with hindsight, is to tell them the story. The story has to be told by someone who has always lived in the area that the farmer knows. Farmers don't often trust new people. You need to get the parish council to realise how important it is for the area. A good parish council will go down in history for this project. In our area the chairman often becomes the champion, and everyone trusts them to have checked B4RN out and verify that we walk the talk. We employ people on comparitivly low wages, train them and promote them, but they could all get far more money working for someone else. Our criteria is that they want to become part of an amazing team doing some good with their work and their lives, and many of them are also volunteers in their spare time. I myself am still a full time volunteer because I believe in the project and see first hand the good it does. We now find we have farm kids coming home and during this pandemic they can work at home. 5 farms in my own parish who refused the connecion when we went past their farms got connected two weeks ago, and that was because even though they didn't want it and the route didn't cross their land we still left provision in 2013 for their connections. They know now that their kids couldn't exist on their half meg bt connection that they thought would always be adequate in those days. They are now on facebook and getting all the local news from the community groups. The kids have introduced them to lifelines they didn't know existed. They couldn't do their RPA and stewardship themselves before, they had to go to the auction to do it, but now they can do it. In 2013 websites were very simple, nowadays half a meg won't cut it and they time out, and farmers get very cross if something doesn't work, so they don't use it. In these 5 farms alone, a farmer's daughter is working from home. She uses video conferencing and doesn't have to travel. A farmer's son has come home from Bath and he is working from home, he couldn't come home until they got B4RN in. A gamekeeper on top of the mountain with no mobile signal and no broadband (he's only just moved onto the farm) and a very pregnant wife feels much more secure, security cameras now work on the farms, an older couple have been shown how to do online shopping, and a young family have moved back to the farm property now the kids can do their schoolwork online. B4RN bent over backwards to get them online, including 4 lane crossings and three river crossings.

Another reason to contact all the farmers is to find out which barns or buildings may be converted in the future, or potential planning/caravan sites etc so that fibre counts can be costed in from the start, and connections left ready at chambers for the future. This will be added to your parish budget, but is well worth doing. All this is done before wayleaves are even mentioned.

A farmer who was refusing wayleaves which would have neccesitated a £17k road dig to reach a village changed his mind in the nick of time to save them from having to find all that money. (this was in pre-voucher days when the community paid for everything themselves). The farmer only changed his mind because a member of the community convinced him that B4RN isn't like other telcos. How you do that is half the battle. His land had no farm on it, it was fell land so he had nothing at all to gain from letting it through. But he did in the end. A few years later he bought a property with no broadband and asked us to connect it. It necessitated a lot of work, but we did it. If he hadn't have given wayleave all those years previously he would have had to find 'commercial rates' and paid the community £17k back at the very least because his actions had caused that spend. I think that is fair, but I feel very sorry for any farmer who has refused because I know they will regret it one day, and they have not had the right advice or information. Being a farmer I feel I can say all these things, and the only excuse I can give is that our lives are spent working extremely hard and we see the supermarkets taking all the profits and cutting down our prices and we distrust far too many companies. A gushing salesman extolling the virtues of b4rn would turn me off. A quiet conversation with someone who can answer all my questions who I trust is worth far more to me. Then I would need time to check it out and have a think. If someone mentioned signing something at this point I would run a mile.

I know this virus is a terrible scourge on the planet, and I wish it hadn't happened, but it filling me with hope that we can emerge at the other side with more humanity and common sense. I see it all the time, shining like stars. Neighbours helping each other, and especially the respect everyone is having for the farmers after years of moaning about the smells we make... hey ho, every cloud has a silver lining. I have been self isolating for 5 weeks on my farm, longer than being snowed in during winter, and because of the technology I can manage perfectly. We are getting many requests in from farmers and villagers who can't manage on what comes down phone lines, especially at peak times, whereas with b4rn we can do anything. For farms close to towns they can probably manage a bit longer with the BT offering, but they have to remember other farmers where B4RN is their only hope. Like our 5 farms - I remember speaking to them at the time and they were firmly convinced they would never need b4rn. One old couple are now going to church again virtually... they can't believe it.

If you want me to speak to any of your farmers I am always available. good luck, keep the faith, find time to watch the little films, and there are tons more on youtube from the early days, just google b4rn.

To get in touch with Chris, send her a message using our web-form here, or telephone her on +44 1524 221588 or mobile +44 7952 503253.

Here is another article - from an Australian site which reinforces what Chris has said above.