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Government admits 'not spots' project flop

26/02/16

Local opposition sabotaged plan to install 600 masts to increase mobile phone coverage

A project to end the mobile phone misery of people living in ‘not spots’ is an embarrassing flop, a Government minister has admitted.

Mobile_phone_mast_O2Just 15 masts have been put up under the £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project, unveiled by George Osborne back in 2011, when 600 were promised.

Now Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey has told MPs criticising the tortuously slow progress of the scheme: “I am guilty as charged. I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think that ministers often say that about their programmes.”

When the Mobile Infrastructure Project got underway in 2013 ministers promised it would help connect rural communities, create local jobs and contribute to economic growth. Infrastructure and media services company Arqiva was appointed to deliver the project and the big four mobile network operators pledged to provide their services.

The £150 million fund was intended to pay for the infrastructure, while the mobile phone companies funded each site’s operating costs for a 20-year lifespan.

Pledge in tatters

Now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has decided to wrap up the project next month, at the end of its original three-year timescale. The move threatens to leave a pledge to deliver mobile phone coverage to 60,000 more remote premises across the UK – out of 80,000 in known ‘not-spots’ – in tatters.

During a Commons debate, Vaizey said: “We set aside £150 million. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place.”

He pointed to problems with the mobile phone companies, local planners and local residents to explain the project’s failure.

“We were dragging four operators with us, metaphorically kicking and screaming,” he said.

“We have had communities campaigning against masts and putting concrete blocks in front of the base stations to prevent any further work.”

One council, Wiltshire, spent so long arguing about the colour of a mast that it missed the deadline for planning approval.

Local Conservative backbencher John Glen, MP for Salisbury, said: “The situation is extraordinarily frustrating. By December 2015, a couple of months ago, the project had cost £9.1 million and only 15 masts were live.”

Vaizey found a positive note, however, in insisting that the spread of 4G technology was expected to cut the area of ‘not spots’ to as low as 2% and that of partial ‘not spots’ to about 12%.

Image by Calum Young, CC2.0 through Wikimedia

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