Tuesday, 17 July 2012

An open letter to Geoff Driver on Lancashire County Council’s rural broadband subsidy

06 July 2012 - Cty Cllr Geoff Driver

Dear Mr Driver

I am writing to you regarding Lancashire County Council’s £32 million Super Fast Broadband subsidy. As you are no doubt aware, I have previously expressed concerns that the way this was being rolled out amounted to the urban poor correcting a market failure for the benefit of the rural rich.

I want to be completely reasonable, and when the facts change I am willing to change my mind. I received a letter last week which informed me that the number of my constituents who will benefit from the rural broadband subsidy is over 10,000 higher than I was told when the policy was announced a year ago.

It is a shame that the correct figures were not provided to me in the first instance, and the discrepancy between the written response from Lancashire County Council in July of 2011 – that 3,262 homes in Hyndburn would benefit – and the written reply from Lancashire Council I received last week – that 13,736 properties will benefit – is quite a substantial difference. This rising urban figure has the counter effect of lowering the % of rural recipients and presenting a more balanced argument. I am sure you will agree that it is disconcerting to know that the County Council felt enough confidence to provide an absolute figure in the first instance and sent these figures to a Member of Parliament signalling that the County Council knew the facts. I can accept some discrepancy as the project moves forward but would it not have been better to say 4,000 approximately or provide a full table of 200,000 the beneficiary premises by Borough.

I am sure you will agree in a non-partisan way, that it serves no public office well that such erroneous data is sent out. For the record I did on two occasions ask for the full table of beneficiary premises by Borough, which officers at Lancashire County Council perhaps thought was politically unhelpful. Had a full table been provided, then not only could a full and frank debate have taken place but I and others would have been better placed to spot any errors, able to clarify any anomalies and I would not have been put in a position of expressing an opinion that is based on misleading information.

Lancashire County Council’s statistical unit is amongst the best the country in my view and I am sure as Leader you will see the value in ensuring that the leaders and decision makers – as well as those interested – are aware of the full facts, unabridged and correct.

Some of the other arguments I have made on this issue I do stand by. I represent a poor urban area where broadband can be an expensive luxury, often too expensive for some people, and with 30% of my constituents on the breadline, it is my duty as their MP to make sure their tax money is being fairly spent.

As far as the media reporting is concerned I hope you will understand my dismay at the way my comments have been represented in some quarters. I have always been 100% in favour of rural broadband, in all areas – particularly Lancashire – and my concern was solely the disproportionate benefit it was bringing to wealthier rural areas where the economic benefits of such significant investment are difficult to see in Lancashire. Other areas of the UK may resent a wholly different picture but they are not areas I have or would wish to comment on.

My comments I made were solely to do with Lancashire and it is a shame they were construed as anything else for the sale of magazines and newsprint. I extend my praise to people like Rory Stewart MP who have campaigned for rural broadband in his rural constituency and the way he has concentrated on rural ownership and looking for the greatest tax payer value.

As it stands now, the latest figures being correct, I find myself more in support than I was a week ago for Lancashire’s superfast rural broadband subsidy. I hope you will accept my comments as intended and accept that information sent out by Lancashire County Council should be not only be correct, but fulfil where possible a clear request and not be redacted or edited.

Yours sincerely

Graham Jones MP
CC Farmers Weekly
Countryside Alliance