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City broadband promise ‘just recycled money’ says Labour



Opposition casts doubt on progress of programme to create 'super-connected cities'

Flagship plans to create "super-connected cities" are in trouble, Labour has claimed - with allegations that ministers are "trying to trick the public".

The chancellor's autumn statement hailed the news that more than 5,000 smaller businesses, across 22 cities, have been helped by a £150m government broadband voucher scheme.

The initiative - to cover the cost of high construction charges, or of wireless aerials - had delivered broadband connections an average of six times faster than before.

And, the Treasury said, up to £40 million had been set aside to "extend the scheme to March 2016 and to more cities". Vouchers would be available by April next year.

But written parliamentary answers, to questions tabled by Labour, established that - contrary to the impression given - no extra money was available for the super connected cities programme (SCCP). Furthermore, to the end of September, just £20 million of the original £150 million budget, had been spent, including the sums devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Chris Bryant MP, Labour's digital economy spokesman, said: "Now we've found out that the £40 million for broadband vouchers is just recycled money. The Tories and Lib Dems are trying to trick the public. This programme was supposed to be finished next year, but it's gone so slowly that they're dragging it out for another one."

"They're only 13 per cent of the way through the programme's budget. This roll-out is slower than rural broadband."

The super connected cities programme has faced accusations that it is failing to live up to its billing almost from the moment it was announced, back in 2011.

The scheme pledged to deliver speeds of between 80 and 100 megabits per second (Mbit/s) to 22 cities, helping 1.7m households and 200,000 premises by 2015.

But BT and Virgin Media were reported to have protested against the fixed line element, because it would help rival companies.

Ministers described the voucher scheme as "one aspect" of super connected cities, which would also deliver "Wi-Fi hot spots in public buildings such as libraries, museums and on selected public transport".

After the autumn statement, Labour asked if the £40 million referred to in the budget book was "in addition to the £150 million previously allocated for that voucher scheme".

In reply, Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander said: "The total budget for the super connected cities programme remains at £150 million."The government has announced that it will make £40 million of this budget available in 2015-16 to allow existing cities to run the voucher element of the scheme for longer, and new cities to participate.

"This prolongs the duration of the scheme, which was originally planned to run until 2014-15."

Pictured: hand held PDA | HAAP Media Ltd. ("freeimages")

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