Top Stormont official warns that DUP-Tory broadband funds may be in jeopardy
A SENIOR Stormont official has warned that further delays in the plan to bring ultra-fast broadband across rural areas of Northern Ireland will increase the "already significant risk" to the £150m funding for the project.
Money for the ambitious infrastructure upgrade, which is expected to substantially increase download speeds in isolated parts of the region, was secured last year as part of the £1 billion Tory-DUP confidence and supply deal.
However, roll-out has stalled due to the lack of an executive and civil servants subsequent reluctance to take key decisions in the wake of the Hightown incinerator court ruling.
According to SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, the investment package is in jeopardy, with the permanent secretary at the Department of the Economy indicating that the tendering process to deliver the project will begin in December, while the contract will be awarded some six months later.
However, in a letter to the Newry and Armagh representative, Noel Lavery stresses that launching the contract tender will require a ministerial decision.
He also warns that "any delay in issuing his tender, would impact on the contract award, increasing the already significant risk that the £150m funding for broadband will not be utilised".
Mr McNulty said the lack of high speed broadband was one of the issues raised most by his constituents.
"This would be a devastating blow to local communities, many in my own constituency who have been holding out patiently for improvements in broadband services," he said.
"This project has been heralded as an answer to many people's connectivity problems and I fear that it could be lost or put on the long finger because of the political instability at Stormont."
The SDLP MLA also raised concerns about the impact of the delay on "hundreds of jobs" in the telecoms sector.
Former Stormont economy minister Simon Hamilton said the investment had the potential to transform the economy – citing a report which found it could be worth £1.2 billion to the region.
The Strangford MLA blamed "Sinn Féin's boycott of Stormont" for the delay.
"Undoubtedly if we had an executive, this project could be much more advanced," he said.
"We have been pressing both the government and the local civil servants to push ahead with as much preparatory work as possible but for a contract of that magnitude it will evidently require ministerial sign off."
A spokesman for the Treasury insisted there was no imminent possibility of the funds being withdrawn but he said an executive was required for the project's roll-out.
"Our priority is a restored Northern Ireland Executive, and this funding is available for that executive,” the spokesman said.
In July, the Court of Appeal dismissed the Department of Infrastructure's appeal over the quashing of planning permission for a £240m waste incinerator at Hightown near Belfast.
The original decision had been made by a permanent secretary in the absence of a minister but was later ruled unlawful.