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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.