Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has written to Bath and North East Somerset Council urging the local authority to take up a Government offer of funding to improve the area’s broadband internet.
The Cabinet Minister has written to council leaders pressing them on the importance of improving broadband connections, particularly in rural areas, and reminding them that they only have until the end of February to submit their bids or risk losing Government investment.
The Liberal Democrat Cabinet on B&NES Council recently rejected the offer of Government funding, deciding not to join with Bristol and South Gloucestershire Councils in a joint bid to Government. However, this decision was challenged by a back-bench committee of cross-party councillors, meaning the Cabinet now has the opportunity to change its mind.
The West of England currently has £1.4 million allocated to it by Government to help deliver superfast broadband in the area. However, the Culture Secretary warns that councils have to produce their Local Broadband Plans by the end of February and if these are not agreed and funding is not in place by the end of April, he ‘will not be able to confirm that the Government funding will remain allocated to the project for your area.’
Conservative councillors have led calls for B&NES to take up the offer of Government funding and are now pressing the Lib Dem Cabinet to take a decision urgently.
B&NES Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Francine Haeberling, said:
“The Culture Secretary’s letter to the council shows just how important the Government views improving broadband connections and certainly increases the need for the Lib Dems to urgently reverse their previous decision not to bid for funding.
“Delivering fast, reliable broadband throughout the area will deliver economic benefits and enable improved access to public services, as Jeremy Hunt points out. Local businesses have said that good broadband connections will be increasingly vital to our area’s economic competitiveness in the years to come, and we need to address the inequality of access between rural and urban areas. Furthermore, good internet connections are already very important to ensuring school children can access the resources they need for their education.
“We must not let B&NES get left behind the rest of the region and country. But if the council does not act quickly this opportunity will be lost. We hope this letter from Jeremy Hunt is a wake-up call to the Lib Dem administration.”
In his letter to local councils, Jeremy Hunt states that ‘widespread availability of high speed broadband is key to economic success’ and that ‘there are also benefits to individuals as consumers from being able to access online services, and major opportunities for more efficient delivery of public services’. He warns councils that from January a system of reporting progress for each local authority area will be put in place, with a Red/Amber/Green indicator depending on progress with their broadband improvement plans.
In response to the Call-in Panel’s request for the Broadband decision to be reconsidered, at the Open Cabinet meeting held on the 7th December the Lib Dem Cabinet agreed to request for a further report to be brought back to a future meeting. Conservatives have said they hope this report will be presented at the next Open Cabinet Meeting on the 11th January.