Rumour has it that ‘Super connected cities’ were dreamt up on the spur of the moment when Chancellor George Osborne announced he’d ‘found’ £100 million and wanted to do something sexy with it.
There were similar stories around the genesis of the mobile infrastructure project (MIP) in October 2011, so they may be apocryphal, filling the void left by the absence of any coherent digital infrastructure strategy. Or they may be an accurate reflection of this government’s approach to digital policy development.
To be honest I’m not sure which is worst. In any case, I suspect they come down to the same thing – super ad hoc.
Where’s the vision?
I was with Ofcom for six years before entering parliament in 2010, focusing on broadband and the digital economy. I’m not saying Labour ministers and the Business, Innovation and Skills Department (BIS) officials who worked for it were the subject of universal or unalloyed admiration. But you could not accuse the previous government of a lack of focus or consistency on digital infrastructure. There was strategy, there was a vision and there was a plan.
The Digital Economy Report was the culmination of that focus. Written by Lord Carter, former CEO of Ofcom, it followed the Caio Report, the Interim Digital Economy Report, the Gower Review and a series of reports from the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) and others. There was even an independent spectrum broker, Kip Meek, gently banging mobile companies’ heads together to get a deal on spectrum.
There was a clear and well resourced process to get all the ducks in a row to ensure the UK had the infrastructure we need. It is therefore doubly frustrating that the new government chose to blow all the ducks out of the water and embark on a new approach – of sorts.
After dithering on the spectrum auction, they announced £530 million for superfast broadband by 2015. Then another 300 million was ‘found’ from the BBC. In the meantime Labour’s pledge of decent broadband for everyone by the end of this year was quietly dropped, leaving rural communities up and down the country making do with speeds no faster than dial up.
In his 2011 budget the chancellor committed to ensuring the newly announced enterprise zones all had superfast broadband without saying what that meant and where funding would come from – we still do not know.
In October the chancellor found £150 million for mobile infrastructure, initially targeting voice not-spots, but imperceptibly the remit has expanded to include broadband service and it is now being delivered by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).
Then in the Autumn Statement came the announcement of super connected cities - £100 million for 10 cities with 100Mbits broadband.
Finally in last month’s budget, Osborne announced another £50 million for smaller super connected cities, as well as naming the lucky 10. My constituency of Newcastle was one of them.
So that is over a billion pounds of public money announced in dribs and drabs over two years targeting just about everything apart from a decent broadband infrastructure.