Lancashire County Council’s investment of £32m to get superfast broadband to rural areas is being brought into question by a local MP, who claims other, more pressing social issues should take priority.
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Graham Jones, Labour MP for Haslingden and Hyndburn – near Accrington in East Lancashire – found himself at the centre of the rural broadband debate after posting a blog last week, claiming rural areas set to benefit from the large investment were “a playground for the wealthy” and it was a “rural Tory broadband issue.”
But Graham Jones told Computer Weekly today he is not against the pledge to get broadband to 97% of the county within two years.
Jones said he wondered why the “market failure” to roll out rural broadband connections had been subsidised, when other social issues in rural and urban areas of Lancashire were being ignored.
“Lancashire County Council claim 200,000 commercial and residential properties will benefit, which equates to just 30p a week for 10 years for each premise,” said Jones.
“There is no explanation why a £32m subsidy is required [rather than private investment], no explanation of how many further jobs it will create other than the paltry 25 it will require and £5m of this funding is directly from the Lancashire’s poor council tax payer. That’s a cost of £1m plus per job.”
He claimed the technology could be outdated in 10 years: “What will happen next, a further £60m subsidy?”
Jones said his constituents were being ignored.
“All this, when Hyndburn made the front page of national papers with the statistic that 30% of all families are one bill away from slipping into official poverty, with the Accrington Observer carrying the headline ‘It’s worse than the depression,’” Jones said.
With big providers such as BT claiming there is no business case to reach these areas, another option could be to follow Cumbria MP Rory Stewart's advice of seeking government "soft loans" to residents to pay for broadband rollout, which they could then pay back at a low rate over 10 years.
“I applaud Rory Stewart's efforts in Cumbria, which is far more rural and far more rurally deprived,” Jones told Computer Weekly.
“It just goes to show that the private sector can deliver at a reasonable cost in far more remote areas than wealthy rural Lancashire.”
He concluded: “You have to understand Lancashire to understand this issue.
"It is hard to make a case that this £32m will create jobs in development averse high employment rural Lancashire areas, that the technology is future proof and hard to believe that at 30p per week it could not have been paid for by private sector investment.”