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MP Tim Farron Calls on Gov to Probe U-Turn on B4RN’s Cumbria FTTP Build

Tuesday, Jun 20th, 2023 (4:07 pm) - Score 2,328
b4rn_outside_wall_ftth_install

The Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, has once again gone to bat for UK broadband ISP B4RN after the Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency unexpectedly pulled the rug out from under one of their rural gigabit voucher based full fibre builds in Cumbria (i.e. the project for Warcop, Sandford, Coupland Beck, Bleatarn and Ormside).

Much as we reported last week (details here), the planned deployment appeared to be progressing toward the start of build and had already been designated as a Voucher Priority Area (VPA) by BDUK. This is normally used to avoid voucher projects stalling when clashing with the wider Project Gigabit procurement. Both sides of the programme focus on the same sort of rural areas, so BDUK has to avoid duplicating public investment.

However, at the 11th hour and for reasons that remain unclear, BDUK recently declared that the deployment was no longer designated as a VPA and instead placed the area into the initial scope of the regional supplier procurement. This reflected the deferred scope of the Regional Suppler (type B) procurement in Cumbria, which was won by commercial operator Fibrus all the way back in November 2022 (here).

The good news is that a small ray of hope emerged today after Tim Farron MP managed to raise the matter in parliament during two separate, albeit roughly related, debates – one on the technology sector and the other on rural volunteer groups  (here and here). In one of those he even got a useful response.

Tim Farron MP said:

“The tech sector in rural Cumbria depends on reliable broadband. Communities in Warcop, Sandford, Coupland Beck, Blea Tarn and Ormside in Westmorland have signed up to the community interest company and volunteer group B4RN to provide a gigabit connection for just £33 a month, but the communities have been suddenly designated a low priority area, which means that their vouchers have been removed, putting the whole project at risk.

Will the Chancellor commit to supporting those communities, residents and businesses to ensure that they get the vouchers that they were initially promised?”

In response, the Chancellor of the UK government, Jeremy Hunt, has promised to “happily look into what has happened … We strongly support all rural areas having access to gigabyte broadband, as an important part of our policy. We have made a lot of progress on that. I will look into detail of what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s area and get back to him.”

We should point out that a number of other gigabit voucher projects have since informed us that they too have been impacted by a similar decision from BDUK. We should also add that this isn’t the first time that Farron has lent his support to B4RN, and the last time did result in some action, which is actually how the VPA designation came into existence in the first place.

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Mark-Jackson
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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
11 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Ben says:

    gigabyte / gigabit?

  2. Avatar photo John H says:

    Well done Tim Farron.

    1. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Words are cheap, especially for opposition backbenchers. Whilst the whole vouchers versus Project Gigabit bids is a mess, that’s both government (not BDUK) accountability, and it’s the circumstances that exist. So what are people asking for here?

      If the vouchers for B4RN did get released, then the BDUK scheme is coming along behind and likely to open up the area to wholesale competition, if that happens we’ve got duplicate taxpayer subsidies (which is unacceptable) but more importantly where will a competing network leave the B4RN scheme, and who will take the financial risks?

      Or is it proposed to take the B4RN properties out of the Gigabit scheme, and work round it, leaving the residents with no access to competitive suppliers for the next few decades? The whole policy basis of public subsidy is to promote wholesale access and consumer choice.

    2. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      Farron is hardly a back-bencher.

    3. Avatar photo anonymous says:

      They’re either frontbenchers or backbenchers. Frontbenchers are government ministers, and shadow ministers of the official opposition. He’s not a shadow minister, he’s not even a member of His Majesty’s official opposition, so he’s a backbencher.

      Just because he’s a LibDem spokesperson for anything does not alter that fact. The minor parties often like to refer to their “frontbench team”, the simple reality is that they aren’t frontbenchers.

    4. Avatar photo Peter Delaney says:

      Fibrus, as the initial scope builder, have first dibs on the deferred scope. It seems they want the deferred scope and BDUK have approved it. On the other hand, this quote was taken from a Project Gigabit regional procurement document:

      “The regional supplier contract includes two categories of intervention: Initial Scope, where the regional supplier should build as quickly as possible; and Deferred Scope where we wait and see whether commercial plans or voucher projects translate to delivery, but could then build if not.”

      “For premises that are included in the Deferred Scope of contract, we will seek a price from the regional supplier, but will not authorise build unless and until they are re-classified as White. We will always either descope Under Review premises or defer build to them and we will always descope Grey or Black premises.”

      (FYI “White” premises are those unlikely to be built to within 3 years.)

      This seems to suggest that the B4RN project would have reasonably expected to proceed with their voucher project unhindered. Instead, voucher eligibility was withdrawn.

      So, either it was an incorrect decision by BDUK, which will eventually be corrected, or some change or clarification in policy has occurred.

      However, the article indicates a number of other projects have been similarly affected so a change of policy might be the more likely.

      Whatever the reason, the general public have no visibility of the BDUK decision making process. So, getting a decision reviewed, or even explained, and it’s questions in Parliament time.

    5. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Thanks Peter, that’s clear and helpful. With limited options I can understand trying the MP. Sometimes an MP can provoke action, although this usually seems to be the case if they have a personal connection with the relevant minister or if they can trade favours for constituents or in support of various political actions. Between a minority party opposition MP and the relevant minister (Whittingdale) both of those seem improbable situations, and if that’s the case then the likely outcome is the sort of boring ministerial boilerplate response that evades the purpose of the question. You’ll know the sort of thing, that drones on about “BDUK is responsible for blah blah blah and between 2019 and 2023 has delivered blah blah blah…delivering the aims set out in the telecoms strategy blah blah blah.”

      If there’s a reasonable argument that the B4RN scheme should have gone ahead under the prevailing rules, then those affected might consider taking this through the formal complaint route with BDUK (complaint policy is on their website), and if that gets brushed off ask for it to be reviewed by an external reviewer, perhaps also try contacting one of BDUK’s non-executive directors.

    6. Avatar photo Peter Delaney says:

      Andrew, the only thing I would add to what you say is that network builders who use vouchers do have a direct line to BDUK. You would think this would be the conduit through which problems like this could be discussed and resolved but no.

      Sadly, BDUK/DSIT sometimes make a decision like this and just stand back. Perhaps a civil servant’s decision, perhaps a minister’s. Who knows ?

    7. Avatar photo John says:

      “Farron is hardly a back-bencher.”

      Err.. that’s exactly what he is.

      Previous status as party leader makes no difference. When people leave the government or the shadow cabinet they return to the “back benches”

    8. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Peter Delaney: “Perhaps a civil servant’s decision, perhaps a minister’s. Who knows ?”

      As BDUK are an “executive agency”, I’d guess that it’s a civil servant decision. Ordinarily, civil servants don’t make executive decisions. It’s a bit “Yes, Minister” at times – I’m a civil servant, and everything requires a minister’s approval, since that’s how our system of government works, with a split between executive (politicians) and administrative (civil service).

      However, for BDUK, as an exec agency there will be a narrow remit of decision responsibility, they’ll have to work within existing policies and higher up decisions, and they don’t make policy but within those confines they can make some narrow decisions, subject to oversight (and interference) from politicians.

      That’s why it’s worth complaining – and seeking out all the official bases and policies upon which they say they make their decisions, because if it can be shown they have not made a decision in accordance with those, then they’ll have to revisit it. If it’s a politicians decision then short of high court action there’s no way of getting it revisited, as they’ll never admit they’re wrong, even if the world and his wife can see that they are.

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