While Johnson peddles broadband pie-in-the-sky, Devon Conservatives’ delivery plans have exploded – and his Chancellor failed to confirm that £18m funding is still available to pick up the pieces!
Viewed from Devon, the most laughable of all Boris Johnson’s election wheezes is his promise to get ‘full-fibre ultrafast broadband’ into all homes by 2025.
“Without any detail it is just a pledge,” says Andrew Ferguson, editor-in-chief of broadband comparison site ThinkBroadband. “The key to getting excited is dependent on what the pledge means in terms of help for commercial roll-outs and extra funding to ensure that areas unlikely to see commercial roll-out for a number of years can be moved forward.”
No one will be getting excited in rural Devon. The County Council Scrutiny committee on which I sit has been following a long saga of failure by Connecting Devon and Somerset, the quango supported by the two Tory-controlled counties to deliver to a large swathe of difficult-to-reach properties.
We found out on Thursday, after questioning from myself and other councillors (watch the webcast), that
- Contracts given to Gigaclear, supposed to have been completed in December 2019 but cancelled in July after many months of fruitless re-negotiations with the company (with only 1 out of 5 contracts completed), will not be put out to tender again until 2020.
- There will need to be a 12-month tender process to find a new contractor.
- The earliest a new contractor will start will be later in 2021.
- Although CDS has asked for the £18.7m funding to be renewed until 2023, Johnson’s chancellor, Sajid Javid, didn’t mention it in his recent funding statement which in any case – because it was designed purely to showcase election gimmicks – only covered the next financial year.
- So CDS cancelled the Gigaclear contracts without even knowing that they would have the money to replace them.
- Even if the funding is restored, officers agreed that the 2023 target is likely to prove unrealistic for a new contractor.
So we are looking (at best) at something like a 5-year overshoot, and even if it is completed, the CDS programme would still leave thousands of homes in Devon and Somerset without ‘full-fibre ultra-fast broadband’ which Johnson promises, as it was never designed to reach every household.
And while Johnson promises pie-in-the-sky, his government’s election-boosting funding statement has just caused a further delay to the botched programme, making the job of picking up the pieces in Devon even harder.
Months ago, the Cabinet member responsible, Rufus Gilbert – who was conveniently absent on Thursday – described Devon’s broadband crisis as a ‘mini-Brexit’. If the Tories can’t get local broadband right, hold your breath as they hurl us towards the national cliff-edge.
Devon is now part of the Better Broadband Voucher Scheme, which offers up to £350 for basic broadband installation to homes and businesses that will not benefit from superfast broadband within the next 12 months.
People who can’t get superfast broadband can now obtain a voucher for up to £350 towards a private installation. Details HERE.
At Devon County Council’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee yesterday, campaigner Guy Cashmore told members that (up to September) Devon had the lowest uptake in the BDUK Phase 2 rollout – 5 per cent compared to a national average of 25 per cent. Cabinet member, Cllr Stuart Barker, who represents Devon on the board of Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), said that he was nevertheless confident that the target of 95 per cent of homes with super fast broadband by 2020 would be achieved.
The Committee approved a careful task group report on the rollout, with important recommendations for improved transparency, but my proposal that CDS board meetings should be open to the public (albeit with commercially sensitive discussions reserved) was defeated by 6-4.
Devon County Council managed not to spend £2 million it was supposed to contribute to Connecting Devon and Somerset’s roll-out of broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural areas, because CDS didn’t need the money. When I pointed out that many people were having to wait far too long, and asked if the money couldn’t be used to speed things up, Conservative Cabinet Member Cllr Stuart Barker said that that was up to CDS, not Devon County Council to decide.
Gigaclear announce superfast broadband rollout by 2020 in Branscombe, Weston, Farway and Offwell – postcode checker available online
It is intended that work will start in Q3 of 2019 (Q4 in Offwell) and finish in 2020: Q1 Farway, Q2 Branscombe and Offwell, and Q4 (Weston). You can see the map and check your postcode HERE.
Although a Carillion company has been contracted for some of the work, Ian Thomas quotes statements suggesting that Carillion’s collapse will not affect the programme.