Political row over rural broadband

Superfast broadband bid
Superfast broadband bid

The Tories and Labour have locked horns on superfast broadband in Northumberland with the Conservatives claiming the plan is in chaos and subsequently being accused of scaremongering.

Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, says the county council’s plans to provide broadband to its most rural areas have been ‘decimated’ by cuts to staff working on the project and a revenue funding cut of £713,000.

But councillors from the Labour administration reacted with dismay to his claims on the decision by the council to claw back the money to plug a gap in digital coverage in the most rural areas.

Council leader Grant Davey has accused Coun Jackson of ‘scaremongering’ and insisted that the claw-back was in response to concerns that BT would not roll out fibre-optic schemes to the most rural areas because ‘it wouldn’t be cost-effective’.

Following the procurement process, BT is responsible for rolling out superfast broadband to 91 per cent of properties across the county and last year, Northumberland County Council established Arch Digital as part of its development arm, Arch, in order to oversee the delivery, including to the remaining nine per cent.

Coun Jackson said: “The plan now looks to be in chaos. We now know that both the broadband manager and his team, employed by Arch Digital, have effectively been sacked. This throws the whole roll-out plan into disarray. Despite funding being made available from the Government, without the local team in place it looks impossible for the county to deliver on its promise to serve our rural areas with superfast broadband.”

Broadband 4 Northumberland’s campaign director and propective Conservative parliamentary candidate, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said she was deeply shocked by the news that key staff at Arch Digital have been removed. She added: “If the new broadband delivery team has been slashed then our most rural communities will be the ones to suffer. Our campaigning over the last three years has driven the extensive work done to try to deliver broadband to our most rural areas.”

But Coun Davey said: “If we don’t act, then we will most definitely find our most rural areas frozen out of the broadband revolution. Coun Jackson is, once again, shooting from the lip and I’m sure Conservative councillors who represent rural wards will question the value of creating yet another scare story for party-political purposes.”

Coun Scott Dickinson, the council’s business chairman and member for Druridge Bay, added: “We’re seeking to meet the potential gaps in coverage under the BT contract negotiated by the last administration and we think that by using the claw-back from BT we can make broadband available to more rural locations than originally envisaged. It’s disappointing that Coun Jackson and Northumberland Tories have picked this issue up to make political capital. This judgement call comes fast on the back of their rash pledge to find £100million to resurface all roads in the county.”