South Gloucestershire Council (SGC) has responded to criticism of its leisurely approach to dealing with broadband infrastructure problems by forming a new partnership with the neighbouring county of Wiltshire, whose plans are claimed to be “the most advanced in the country”.
South Gloucestershire had previously been working with Bristol City Council and Bath & North East Somerset (BANES) after being assigned a collective pot of £1.4 million from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) in August but the BANES Cabinet recently voted to decline the Government cash after it realised it would have to match fund it to the tune of £1 million.
SGC’s recent launch of a lengthy 13-month public consultation in which businesses and residents are being asked to “register interest in receiving improved broadband connectivity” triggered an avalanche of negative comments from Journal readers, many of whom are struggling with sub-standard connections in non-cabled areas of Bradley Stoke.
The same sentiment was echoed by local MP Jack Lopresti speaking in the House of Commons yesterday when he said that progress made by Conservative-run SGC had “not been as quick as I and some of my constituents would like”.
Another South Gloucestershire MP, Lib Dem Pensions Minister Steve Webb, was also recently critical of SGC’s progress on broadband, saying the Council had been “particularly slow on the issue and has not yet even submitted a plan [to BDUK]”.
Mr Lopresti was also critical of Lib Dem-controlled BANES, saying:
“It made no sense for the Lib Dem administration to pull out of the joint plan with South Gloucestershire council, given all the benefits that superfast broadband could bring to households and businesses across both districts.”
And it’s not only residents and MPs that have been concerned about the lack of progress – Government Minister Jeremy Hunt recently ordered all local authorities to submit a draft Local Broadband Plan by the end of February 2012. Plans must be agreed with the Government by the end of April and procurement of equipment must begin within a further three months.
In today’s announcement, SGC promises that it will now be “among the first in the country to begin the process of signing up a commercial provider”.
Under the plans agreed with Wiltshire (and Swindon) Councils, the process of inviting bids from commercial suppliers is set to begin in spring 2012, with the contract announcement due in the summer. Work to install the network is expected to begin by December 2012, with the first residents and businesses able to sign up for superfast broadband from 2013.
The Council has now brought forward the closing date of it public consultation by ten months to Wednesday 29th February 2012.
Meetings of the SGC Cabinet in January and February will now consider reports before the Full Council is asked to confirm match funding of South Gloucestershire’s £710k BDUK allowance at its budget setting meeting later in February.
Today’s announcement was welcomed by the five South Gloucestershire Councillors for Bradley Stoke, who issued the following statement:
“We had real concerns when Lib Dem-run Bath & North East Somerset Council suddenly pulled out of the joint superfast broadband project with South Gloucestershire because of all the uncertainties this caused and the fact it could have left our town languishing in the slow lane.”
“But this announcement shows that we now appear to be in the superfast lane of the superfast broadband roll-out and we commend the immense behind-the-scenes efforts of South Gloucestershire Council to find more willing partners who share a common determination to ensure that our town amongst others are at the forefront of the country’s superfast broadband revolution.”
The Editor comments
This sounds like good news for rural South Gloucestershire. What a pity the Council didn’t think of doing it a year ago when initial partnerships for BDUK bids were being formed.
What we need to know now is whether Bradley Stoke qualifies for any of the BDUK cash at all. Or will we still be left waiting for BT to do the job with its own money because the Government considers the Almondsbury exchange area “commercially viable” for superfast broadband?
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