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Government Warns Three Councils Over Broadband Funding

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The government has officially warned three English councils that they could lose access to fibre broadband funding

The temperature surrounding the government’s £530 million superfast broadband funding is heating up, after three English councils were officially warned they could lose access to the public funds.

The warning came from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It follows a caution earlier this month from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt when he told an all-party parliamentary group on local government that he may remove the funding from councils’ control if they fail to follow the government’s timetable for rolling out superfast broadband.

Funding Deadline

This deadline was set in December when the government announced that English councils had until February to apply for Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) funding. The government had pledged a pot of £530 million to help councils provide fibre connections to areas where it might not be economically viable for telecom companies to do so.

Click On Map To Enlarge

The DCMS has officially identified those English councils that are unlikely to made the February deadline and have “slipped behind schedule”, after it issued a Google map so that local people can visually check the progress of the BDUK scheme in their area.

The map identified three problem councils in England (identified by red flags) as not being able to meet the February deadline. These councils are Liverpool, Knowsley, St. Helens, Sefton, Wirral; Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland; and lastly Bath and North East Somerset.

Somewhat worryingly a further 13 English councils (yellow flags) are also at risk of  missing out on the funds.

“I have been impressed by the enthusiasm the majority of councils have shown for seizing the opportunity to roll-out superfast broadband,” said Communications Minister Ed Vaizey (pictured) in a statement, before expressing his displeasure with the laggards.

“I am disappointed that a few councils seem to have slipped behind schedule and I will be seeking urgent talks with these councils to ensure they understand the need to make real progress quickly,” said Vaizey. “We do not intend to continue to fund councils if they continue to fail to deliver.”

It is worth noting that the government grandstanding on this matter is a little rich considering the fact that local councils must find their own funding to supplement the BDUK funding from central government.

Funding a ‘big ask’

Earlier this week Socitm, (the association for ICT professionals in local public services) said that government hopes of getting local councils to raise their own funding is a ‘big ask’, at a time when frontline services are being cut.

Regions across the UK have already been allocated their broadband funding share from the BDUK pot, but it has been repeated by many industry watchers (including TechWeek Europe) that the government is simply not committing sufficient public funds for the fibre rollout.

This is despite the government previously stating that its goal is to ensure that the majority of UK homes get 25Mbps by 2015, because it believes that superfast broadband is vital for ‘economic growth’.

The government has in reality opted to invest a tiny amount of money (roughly £750 million when additional funding via other schemes is included) for such a vital piece of infrastructure. Indeed, its funding is paltry when compared to the £2.5 billion that BT (a privatised entity with shareholders) has committed to rolling out fibre to two-thirds of the UK.

Despite this, the government is prepared to invest significantly in other infrastructure projects, after it opted to spend up to £33 billion on the HS2 railway line.

The lack of progress and frustration on the matter was raised recently by the campaign group the Countryside Alliance, after it found progress to be “underwhelming” where rolling out superfast broadband in rural areas is concerned.