Broadband Breckland Investment (Agenda item 11)
Report of the Leader Michael Wassell, Ellen Jolly, Portfolio Holder for Finance & Democratic Services and Mark Kiddle-Morris, Portfolio Holder for Assets & Strategic Development
Members were made aware that Superfast Broadband (defined as 24Mbps+) was emerging as a priority infrastructure within Norfolk. It had been estimated that the current Rural Broadband programme would deliver returns of £20 for every £1 invested. Better Broadband for Norfolk (BBfN) was a multi-million pound partnership between Norfolk County Council and BT which was currently implementing the initiative within Norfolk. The current program would provide access to Superfast Broadband to 83% of Norfolk properties by the end of 2015. In addition, the programme would also ensure that every property had access to at least 2Mbps. It was emphasised that currently only county wide figures were available but from research it would appear that both the coverage and indeed the gaps were spread evenly across Norfolk. The actual figures for each District would only become available early in 2015 once BT had completed its survey work.
This was an exciting opportunity to improve the coverage within Breckland; the Government had offered Norfolk a further £5.59 million and the Local Enterprise Partnership was seeking match funding for this from the Department of Transport. If this funding was secured, the estimate was that a further 7% of Norfolk properties would have access to Superfast Broadband; this would bring total coverage of up to 90%. The County Council had sought an additional £4 million of further funding for Norfolk. It had also received ministerial approval for this, subject to local match funding. The County Council had allocated a further £1 million. District Councils had been offered the opportunity to participate in the improvement of Superfast Broadband by agreeing in principle to allocate funds. It was hoped that this would increase the coverage of Superfast Broadband to 95% across Norfolk. It should be noted that:
- Breckland funding would only be used in Breckland Council
- Breckland Council would have an input as to the priorities for investment with the District
- If at this point it was considered that the investment did not represent good value for money the Council need not proceed
- In terms of areas that were adjacent to Breckland’s borders with other Districts, Breckland Council would work with these authorities to ensure that Breckland Council received the maximum for the investment that was initially made.
- District funding would be used during 2016/17 and 2017/18.
- As this covered so many facets of what Breckland did as a District Council, the Chief Executive together with the Leader would lead on this project.
Based on the county wide estimates that Breckland Council had been provided with (and Members were asked to note that until early 2015 these were the best figures it could get), Cabinet was requested to recommend to Full Council an in principle agreement to provide funding of up to £950,000 to deliver the project across Breckland. This amount would be transferred from the Council’s Organisational Development Reserve and earmarked for Broadband Partnership Funding for call down in 2016/17. It was likely that the actual amount required would be less; however, as the amount committed could not be increased once the in principle agreement had been made, and because of the actual gaps in coverage, the actual cost would not be known until early 2015. The commitment had to be made now, and the Leader of the Council did not want to miss out on maximising the benefit to Breckland residents by agreeing a lesser amount.
Not much more information was available neither was there any data available as to the actual areas that would be funded by the District monies, it was only the current commercial initiative that was underway. Once BT had completed its surveys, the necessary information would be released to the Council, under a Non-Disclosure Agreement, the actual locations could not be covered. Breckland Council would then decide which areas offered the best returns for its investment; this would involve factors including social, economic, commercial, educational, access to services and many others. Breckland Council was the first District Council in Norfolk to progress this opportunity through the democratic process, thus hopefully securing maximum advantage for its residents.
Councillor Bambridge supported the proposal as the shortage of broadband in the area was very well known. He did ask however, if there would be other suppliers being used apart from BT, if there would be further discussions prior to the monies being committed and what would happen to the villages that did not fit into the investment. Councillor Bambridge said that he knew of other companies that could provide WIFI and he wanted some of his communities to have access to this funding.
In response to the first question, the Leader advised that BT was covered by a commercial initiative. As far as out of reach areas were concerned, there would be some form of mechanism to enhance current broadband speed but these areas would not have access to Superfast Broadband.
The Executive Support Member for Corporate Services and Quality Assurance felt that this initiative was vital for Breckland and felt that the risk of doing nothing was greater as the lack of broadband could affect many businesses and stifle growth.
The Executive Member for Planning, Building Control & Housing said that everyone was living in a digital age even most school work had to be completed on line. This initiative would encourage prosperity and was vital for the area.
The Executive Member for Corporate Services & Quality Assurance said that the risk of doing nothing would be far more damaging to Breckland Council. He touched on the social scope that Broadband would have an impact on. It would certainly, in his opinion, allow diversification and employment in rural areas not forgetting the importance in regard to education. Also, it would overcome social isolation and allow those people to have greater access to services and allow the elderly to remain in their own homes. Further to this he felt that if Breckland Council did not support this initiative it could distort house values in rural areas and therefore, he strongly endorsed what was being proposed.
The Vice-Chairman agreed and pointed out that estate agents were now including broadband details on their properties.
Councillor Joel reported that Old Buckenham High School pupils were all from rural areas and without faster broadband they would not be able to access school work. He felt that BT should be marketing this initiative more.
The Opposition Leader said that from some points of view this was very good but he could not believe that so many areas were still cut off and he struggled with the fact that public money was being used for a private service. He questioned the amount that BT was putting in, in times of massive funding cuts. He felt that having a roof over ones head was more important and he hoped that this boldness could be replicated in other areas. He reminded Members of the ‘Could We Should We’ exercise that the Council went through but now it had £1 million to spend on Broadband. He felt that the timing and process was very odd.
In response the Leader advised that the timing had been forced upon the Council and if it did not go ahead, the chance would be lost. He reminded Members that the towns had adequate Broadband but the villages did not.
The Executive Member for Assets & Strategic Development pointed out that economic development was not a statutory duty and was cost neutral. He knew of a number of businesses that had to use satellite to talk to their suppliers/buyers and he also knew of some people who would prefer to work from home. To attract more businesses to the area was vital.
The Executive Member for Finance & Democratic Services felt it was the Council’s responsibility to be encouraging this initiative but this should not be classed as Breckland paying for broadband as these monies would be matched. She felt that it would be an excellent use of money and an excellent investment that would bring its own rewards.
The Executive Member for Communications, Organisational Performance, Development & Public Protection said that he was cautious of spending council tax payers’ money; however, Members had to look at the broader picture. This was a contribution up to, and what were the alternatives, would the Opposition Leader prefer Breckland to be the ‘black hole’ of Norfolk? He drew attention to section 1.1 of the report and asked Members to replace the word UK with Breckland and also referred to section 4.1.2 of the report where it stated that this investment would have a significant impact on the ability of households and businesses in rural areas to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Superfast Broadband which in his opinion was all positive issues. He also drew attention to section 5.3.5 which highlighted the additional jobs this initiative would create, not forgetting the additional income. He felt that the case had been made and the assurances had been provided and Breckland Council needed to ensure that its residents received the same as Norfolk.
The Executive Member for Corporate Services and Quality Assurance was concerned that the Opposition Leader did not see that this investment was a good use of council tax payers’ money for rural areas; although he felt that his concentration on housing was a very important point. In his defence, the Opposition Leader felt that his views were in danger of being misrepresented and said that all he was trying to get across was that this initiative should be privately funded not publically funded particularly at a time when services were being cut and it was in fact, a question of priorities.
Councillor Carter said that the Council should not be accused of spending money unwisely and reminded Members of the monies that Norfolk County Council would be putting in.
The Leader mentioned the return residents should get from the investment.
To take no action was not considered to be appropriate given the levels of no and poor availability across the District, even after the first round of Better Broadband for Norfolk deployment.
To support the delivery of Super Fast Broadband across as much of the District as possible and provide benefits to both the residential and business community.
An in principle agreement to match fund was required to secure the additional £4million offered by government to be included as part of second phase procurement over the summer 2014
RECOMMEND to Council that:
1) Breckland Council supports the Norfolk County Council Superfast Broadband (SFBB) project and agrees, in principle, to provide funding of up to and not exceeding £950,000 to deliver the project across the Breckland District; and
2) £950,000 be transferred from the Organisational Development Reserve to the Community Projects Reserve and be earmarked for Broadband Partnership Funding for draw down in 2016/2017.