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Westcountry businesses’ anger over Devon and Somerset broadband fiasco

More than 14,000 businesses tell Connecting Devon and Somerset to get its act together over rural broadband after it binned its second-phase BDUK contract with BT

Trade associations representing more than 14,000 small businesses in south-west England have told Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) of their frustration at being left out of a crucial meeting that could determine the future of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) in Devon and Somerset.

The Devon and Somerset chapters of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) for the South West, the Blackdown Hills Business Association (BHBA) and newly formed rural broadband campaign group B4RDS all put their stamps to an open letter ahead of a 3 September 2015 meeting of Devon County Council’s (DCC) Place Scrutiny Committee.

The meeting was convened to examine CDS’ attempts to secure a second-phase BDUK contract, following public representations made to DCC in July 2014 in the wake of the cancellation of BT's contract.

However, Computer Weekly understands that only representatives of CDS, Devon County Council, BDUK, BT, Airband and two local MPs – Neil Parish and Ian Liddell-Grainger – have been invited to attend and only evidence from CDS and possibly BT will be given.

In their letter, the consortium said: “This would not produce a fair examination of the programme and we call on the DCC Place Scrutiny Committee to take evidence on this issue from concerned rural businesses and residents in the two counties affected by these decisions.”

In January 2014, CDS was granted funding of £22.75m to fund phase two of BDUK in Devon and Somerset through a competitive tender process, which the consortium said its members were initially happy with. It said it had continued to place its trust in CDS when it backtracked on this in November 2014 and awarded all the money to BT after all.

However, at the end of June 2015, CDS failed to reach an agreement with BT and the phase two contract was canned amid allegations BT would not be able to meet its targets across Devon and Somerset, nor did the contract represent fair value for money.

In the intervening two months, Westminster has thrown BDUK in the south-west £10m of extra funding – announced in chancellor George Osborne’s summer budget – to explore alternative ultrafast broadband projects in the region. However, to date CDS has not made any movement on resurrecting the tender process for phase two.

The letter said if CDS was to embark on another attempt to find suppliers, it would take at least six months to a year before any contracts were signed.

“It is now 18 months since funding was made available and Devon and Somerset are the only two counties in the UK not to have a 95% minimum phase two broadband contract in place,” it said.

The consortium said the growing amount of government work required to take place online only – filing such as Rural Payments Agency RLE and BPS forms, HMRC quarterly VAT returns, HMRC PAYE and national insurance and auto-enrolment pensions forms, among other things – was causing a real problem for many area businesses.

“We cannot run our businesses on this basis,” the letter said. “Our websites are our shop windows and with every day that passes more of our business processes rely on fast broadband. This is an urgent issue.”

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