AN ambitious plan for an ultrafast broadband network that could serve thousands of Yorkshire homes looks set to be dropped after the Government ordered major changes to a flagship policy aimed at boosting the UK’s digital economy.
Ministers initially gave the go-ahead to multi-million pound plans to create an ultrafast broadband corridor joining the Aire Valley in Leeds to the city centre, continuing to the middle of Bradford and on to Shipley where there is a cluster of digital businesses.
It was hoped 16,000 businesses would be helped by the network which would also be accessible by 88,000 homes along the route.
But now Ministers have backtracked and asked Leeds and Bradford to look again at the scheme because of fears that using Government money to build a broadband network will breach European Union rules.
Council officials have come up with a new scheme which would offer vouchers to businesses in the two cities to help meet the cost of improving their individual data connections.
The two councils believe businesses will still be able to access much better broadband speeds although some technology experts question whether they will reach the 80 megabits per second (Mbps) originally expected. Typical current connections are between two and 10 Mbps.
And there will be no new broadband network, meaning the homes along the Leeds-Bradford corridor also look likely to miss out.
In a joint statement, David Green and Keith Wakefield, the leaders of Bradford and Leeds Councils, respectively, said: “Bradford and Leeds Councils are disappointed that the original Super-Connected Cities plan has been altered at a national level by the Government.
“We have already been at the forefront of delivering free Wi-Fi in the two city centres and on some transport routes and we will continue to work with the Government to work up a new scheme to offer better broadband connections for business and residents.
“We have jointly submitted alternative proposals which would make maximum use of the money available from the programme. We are waiting for a formal response to these proposals.”
In addition to broadband vouchers for businesses, the new-look scheme would try to extend access to better broadband to the public through free wireless access in museums and libraries.
It would also continue with proposals in the original scheme to increase wireless internet access on public transport in the two cities.
Leeds and Bradford secured £14.4m in the first round of the Government’s “Super-Connected Cities” scheme with York handed £2.7m in the second round.
A spokeswoman for York Council said the authority did not expect its proposals to be affected as significantly as other cities because its scheme did not include plans to provide new infrastructure.
The changes to the Super-Connected Cities scheme are an embarassment for the Government, which has regularly used it as an example of investing in future infrastructure that will benefit the economy. Announcing the first round of cities to benefit in last year’s Budget, Chancellor George Osborne said the scheme would “create in the UK ten of the best cities in the world for broadband connectivity”.
Last December, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said it was “cutting through EU red tape” regarding its broadband programme.
A Culture Department spokesman said: “In the initial plans that were submitted there was a component of physical roll-out of infrastructure. It was brought to our attention that the European Commission had indicated that they had some concerns about giving state aid approval for that. It would have subjected the whole thing to lengthy delays.
“Each city was asked to redraw their plans without incorporating those elements and suggesting other ways that money could be spent that would avoid delays.”
A National Audit Office report last week warned the Government’s plan to give superfast broadband access to 90 per cent of the population was running two years late and the private sector contribution to the cost had fallen.