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Shropshire Unable to Solve Broadband Funding Woes via Growth Fund

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 (8:02 am) - Score 455

The Shropshire County Council (SCC) has been dealt another blow in its on-going attempts to secure £11.38m of funding to extend their coverage of superfast broadband to 95%+ by 2017 after the UK Government refused to allow the council to match the funding allocation by drawing on £7.5m set aside via the new Local Growth Deals.

At present the existing £24.6m Connecting Shropshire (England) scheme is already working to deploy BT’s “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) network to 93% of local premises by the end of Spring 2016 (except Telford & Wrekin), which forms part of the Government’s wider Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme.

Earlier this year BDUK proposed to allocate an additional £11.38m of state aid to the region under its Superfast Extension Programme, which aims to make fixed line superfast broadband (24Mbps+) speeds available to 95% of the population by 2017. But during May 2014 it was revealed (here) that SCC was struggling to find the necessary funding (all councils are required to match-fund with the Government’s allocation).

One seemingly now forlorn hope was that Shropshire might be able to solve the problem by drawing on new funding allocated through the Government’s Marches Growth Deal, which has put £7.5m of its £75.3m budget aside for improving broadband connectivity.

The recently revived Telford and Wrekin plan for better broadband from BDUK (here) was also planning to tackle its own funding issues by using the Growth Fund and is still intending to bid for it, although an outcome is not expected for several months. But the latest newsletter from a local campaign group reveals that this approach could also be at risk of failure.

Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Broadband – Update

We’ve reported extensively on the difficulties that Shropshire Council faces in finding the matched money for the second phase of rural broadband roll-out. We’ve also explained how the long-awaited Growth Fund allocations to Local Enterprise Partnerships might have been able to provide some of that matching. Shropshire Council was hoping for that, as was this campaign.

We now learn that the Council and the Marches LEP were advised by the Department for Communities and Local Government that none of the £7.5m can be used for broadband infrastructure in the current year, which is when it is required, yet astonishingly, other parts of the country can use it now, including Norfolk and Worcestershire. There’s also uncertainty about its use for broadband infrastructure in 2015/16.

For a county with such well publicised difficulties over broadband matching we wonder why Shropshire MPs weren’t on the ball, and what they can do now to rectify matters. Telford and Wrekin and Herefordshire Councils were also hoping to use some of the £7.5m so they must be pretty sore about this too.

Worryingly, Cornwall County Council has overmatched its Phase 2 allocation by £2.96m and West Yorkshire has done the same by £6.9m. The implication here is that if Shropshire can’t draw all its money down, the cash could be shifted to those two counties (and probably others) who can use more than they’ve so far been given.

[Local MP] Owen Paterson now has much more time on his hands and says that he will continue to be very vocal from the back benches. Perhaps he could begin by being very vocal about this right old muddle in which Shropshire seems to be a loser.

A separate article in the Shropshire Star newspaper also appears to confirm the situation, which leaves the council in a somewhat uncertain funding position as it continues to hunt for a solution. Sadly all of this comes at a time when the local authority needs to find £60m of savings for the next three years.

Meanwhile one of the more radical approaches could be for Shropshire to abandon the plan to extend their existing project with BT and instead support an alternative proposal from Broadway Partners, which would leverage private investment to match with the additional BDUK funding and without costing the council directly (details). The result would be to deploy an ultrafast Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) solution, albeit with wireless being used to temporarily fill in the gaps.

In the meantime SCC are still discussing the situation with BDUK in the hope of finding a solution, which means that the proposed allocation won’t be redistributed elsewhere just yet but time is slowly running out.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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