Stephen Kerr MP: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport needs to step up to the plate and deliver for the whole UK on Community Broadband
Scottish Conservative MP Stephen Kerr writes following his House of Commons Adjournment debate on Community Broadband.
It amazes me that community broadband schemes happen at all. I told the house this on Thursday during my adjournment debate on Community Broadband. When I look at the heroic efforts of the people in my constituency who have done so much work and experienced so much hassle to get a community scheme I am endlessly impressed.
Richard Harris and David Johnston of Balquidder have worked alongside others in their community to get one of the fastest community broadband schemes in the UK. Balquidder Glen, home of Rob Roy MacGregor who was an outlaw and folk hero made famous by Sir Walter Scott. It is a stunningly beautiful glen with a spread out rural population.
Their experience is one that people across Scotland and the whole UK experience. They have had to work within state aid rules to build a community scheme funded by the public sector. This meant having to wait for Scottish Government and BT to decide whether they would invest. State aid rules prevent the government spending money twice in the same area on digital infrastructure. Despite these rules being widely ignored by other EU members, the UK enforces these rules rigorously.
Volunteers and activists across my constituency and the whole UK are heroes who, in building a better community have delivered better broadband than many commercial options.
Government makes them jump through complex and byzantine hoops. It provides them with a huge and wide range of schemes which it then capriciously drops without warning (such as the broadband voucher scheme). We need to enable and enhance their activities rather than stifle and constrain their creativity.
In Scotland we had the debacle of Community Broadband Scotland which was a failure. Audit Scotland was highly critical of their efforts and their failure to fulfil their objectives. Many community groups got put off by their inactivity. This was the history of the Scottish Government’s approach to broadband. Instead of dealing with the issue they simply wanted to be seen to deal with the issue.
We have a number of other problems that are current in Scotland. The use of the national productivity investment fund for broadband announced in the budget a few weeks ago will mean that the money is not put into broadband in Scotland, instead it will go to the Scottish Government. It is not clear whether they will invest that money in broadband or continue with their dithering. In England they are removing business rates from digital infrastructure wheras in Scotland the Scottish Government dithers.
The Scottish Government’s much vaunted R100 project, which aims to provide 30MB/Sec broadband speeds to every home and business in Scotland by 2021 is already foundering. Contractors will not be appointed until 2019, making it impossible to see how it could be delivered. Just talking about broadband does not deliver broadband.
It is a real shame as we have a need for a national infrastructure plan for broadband. The UK needs a grand vision for internet connectivity. It is time for the UK Government to meet that challenge and wire up the whole UK, every corner of these islands with decent fibre to the premises broadband. This would endow the British people with a technological edge. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport needs to step up to the plate and deliver for the whole UK and deliver what the Scottish Government has consistently failed to deliver.
Stephen Kerr is the Scottish Conservative MP for Stirling