Five questions answered on report criticising the government’s rural broadband rollout plans

We were promised super-fast broadband - where is it?

The National Audit Office has raised concerns over the government’s delayed roll out of superfast rural broadband. We answer five questions on the report.

What are they key criticisms of the report?

Mostly that the scheme is two years behind its original schedule. Only nine out 44 rural areas are expected to reach targets for high superfast internet by 2015, with another four potentially missing an extended 2017 deadline.

The office is also concerned that BT would be the only firm likely to win contracts and thus benefit from £1.2bn of public funds as a result. It also raises concerns over the government’s ability to negotiate fair contracts with BT.

If the scheme is delayed does the report think it will cost the taxpayer more?

Yes.

Originally Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged to have internet speeds above 24 megabits per second available to 90 per cent of premises in every local authority of the UK by May 2015 for £530m, plus funds added by local councils.

Last week the treasury revised its plans, stating that it wanted 95 per cent of UK properties with access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017, and pledged another £250m more to meet this goal.

The report states that the: "government is not strong at taking remedial action to guard against further slippage".

There have also been claims that the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) does not have a proper grip on the programme and that BT is being unclear about costs.

What are other people saying?

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who is the chair of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee, speaking to the BBC said: "Opaque data and limited benchmarks for comparison means the department has no idea if BT is being reasonable or adding in big mark ups.”

What has the DCMS said?

"We agree that effective enforcement of the contracts is important and are working with local authorities to ensure this," a spokesperson told the BBC.

"As the NAO report makes clear, the project's funding model greatly reduced the cost and financial risk to the taxpayer."

What has BT said?

"There was strong competition when prices were set at the start of the process and that has ensured counties have benefited from the best possible terms," the company told the BBC.

"Deploying fibre broadband is an expensive long-term business and so it was no surprise that others dropped out as the going got tough."

However, the report states that there had already been one instance where the company had been caught overcharging the government for management costs of £3m. It also pointed out that some of BT’s figures are largely based on assumption.

Fibre-optic cables - the tools of the trade. Photograph: Getty Images.

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.