November 27, 2012 10:56 pm

Brussels rejects UK broadband delay charge

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Brussels has rejected claims that “stifling EU bureaucracy” was to blame for delays to the rollout of superfast broadband to Britain’s regions in an unusual public rebuke of Maria Miller, the UK culture secretary.

Joaquín Almunia, the EU’s competition commissioner, said “Brussels bureaucrats worked faster than their London colleagues” in clearing the way for state aid to hasten investment in high-speed internet services for rural areas.

His comments came as Ms Miller was singled out for criticism by other ministers in an acrimonious cabinet meeting on Tuesday when the prime minister tackled several departments over the government’s faltering economic growth efforts.

Expansion of superfast broadband to rural areas is a key part of government efforts to increase investment in infrastructure and its push to make Britain the most advanced digital economy in Europe. But the rollout was delayed by a long wait for approval from Brussels for the government to pump £530m of state funds into the project. The green light was finally secured earlier this month.

Aides said Ms Miller responded to criticism in Tuesday’s cabinet meeting by highlighting “her intervention in Brussels” to bring “the rural broadband programme out from under stifling EU bureaucracy”.

Mr Almunia denied that Brussels foot-dragging was to blame. “Politicians on both sides of the Channel must avoid red tape, but the real origin of the delays ... should also be made clear,” he told the Financial Times. “We asked the UK government last February to supply the necessary information to us and only received a complete answer in October.”

A Whitehall aide said Ms Miller deserved credit for breaking the impasse since succeeding Jeremy Hunt as culture secretary in the September reshuffle. “Those that sit in the cabinet should be wary of criticising someone who is acknowledged as making significant headway on a vitally important infrastructure project, particularly when some of her male counterparts cannot make the same claims,” the aide said.

Ms Miller had “achieved more on broadband in the last two months ... than over the last two years”, the aide added.

However, Mr Almunia said talks with Ms Miller in Brussels this month made no difference to the timetable for approval of state aid, which was already in train. The spat with the EU competition chief, an anglophile former candidate for Spanish prime minister, is unusual because the UK is typically a strong champion of competition policy.

State aid approval has cleared the way for local authorities to sign procurement deals with contractors to start work on rural broadband infrastructure projects. However, the programme remains months behind schedule and so far only seven of more than 40 local authorities have completed the procurement work.

An original deadline had targeted procurement to be completed by December this year but this was pushed back to March and has now been extended again to next summer.

The government remains committed to the target of bringing superfast broadband to 90 per cent of the UK by 2015.

All of those areas that have chosen a supplier ahead of the state aid approval have so far awarded contracts to BT. This has fuelled criticism of a lack of competition in the process, with rival bidders struggling to match BT’s scale and expertise.

Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the body responsible for the rollout, has so far spent almost £10m on external consultants. According to figures seen by the FT, the programme has employed about 70 external consultants since May 2010, in addition to the 23 staff currently working within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

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