Local authorities may lose their funding for superfast broadband rollout if they do not adhere to new deadlines set by the government, according to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt who was speaking today.
Local authorities need to submit draft plans to government by the end of February 2012, with final plans likely to be agreed by the end of April.
"Superfast broadband is fundamental to our future economic success. Businesses need it to grow, the public will need it to access new services," said Hunt.
"Some local authorities will find these targets challenging. But I will not allow the UK to fall behind in rollout out superfast broadband. I am confident local authorities will be able to meet the timetable and provide their businesses and residents with the broadband access they need," he added.
This statement comes shortly after a freedom of information request, submitted by the Countryside Alliance, showing that little progress had been made by local authorities selected to pilot superfast broadband rollout in rural areas.
In October 2010, chancellor George Osborne announced that the four pilot areas – Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire – were to be "models for public and private sector collaboration on high-speed broadband networks in rural Britain".
The information released demonstrates that the reality is very different. It shows that Highlands and Islands hasn't spent any money at all, Cumbria has spent just £20k, Herefordshire £50k and North Yorkshire £500k.
Each pilot has been allocated between £5m and £10m of government funding.
Rob Bamforth, analyst at Quocirca, argued that the government deadlines may push local authorities to prioritise broadband rollout. "The deadlines might focus the attention of the local authorities. The challenge is that local authorities are fighting themselves on so many fronts as they have to make budget cuts.
"Everyone can see that superfast broadband is valuable and useful, but you end up focusing on things that are a statutory requirement, rather than things that would be useful," said Bamforth.
"There is also the problem of balancing central and local democracy. There is nothing wrong with allowing the decisions to be made locally, but somehow you need to be able to establish a strong framework so those decisions can be taken," he added.
"You don't want 100 authorities adopting 50 different approaches. You would want 100 authorities selecting three or four different approaches, so you get variation depending on local need, but you don't get a complete mish-mash of services.
"The way you do this is not necessarily by enforcing a solution, but by providing help and guidance. Maybe more help and guidance from central government would be useful, alongside the money that is being made available," concluded Bamforth.
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