Political news

SDLP MLA calls on secretary of state to give ultra-fast broadband go-ahead

The £150m ultra-fast broadband project has stalled because there is no minister to sign it off

AN SDLP MLA has urged the secretary of state to give the green light to the roll-out of the £150m ultra-fast broadband project funded through the Tory-DUP pact.

Newry and Armagh representative Justin McNulty said the plan to substantially increase download speeds in rural areas was already "falling dangerously behind schedule".

When revealed as part of the £1 billion windfall package from the DUP's confidence and supply deal with Theresa May's minority government, the broadband cash was supposed to be spent within two years.

There are fears that if the money is not spent in the specified timeframe then the Treasury may withdraw it altogether.

However, with no executive in place and the recent ruling on the Hightown incinerator making civil servants more cautious in their decision-making, the £150m project has stalled.

The Department for the Economy has told The Irish News that the process of appointing a contractor to deliver ultra-fast broadband to isolated, rural areas will begin "later in the year" – nearly 18 months after the plan was first revealed.

The department said it was considering the options for delivery of the ambitious project and recognised the "challenging timeframe proposed".

It said this concern was shared by the Northern Ireland Broadband Industry Forum, which in a report published yesterday also highlighted a sectoral skills shortage which could impact on the delivery of the £150m investment.

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons highlighted a report by BT which said the project could be "transformative" for Northern Ireland, bringing potential additional benefits worth £1.2billion.

The East Antrim representative said the investment would "benefit people across every corner of Northern Ireland".

However, he warned that there were "only two options open to move things forward".

"Either Sinn Féin lift their veto on restoring devolution and allow local ministers to take decisions or such decisions will have to be taken at Westminster," he said.

Mr McNulty said he did not advocate Karen Bradley making "controversial" decisions on the likes of the North-South Interconnector and the Arc 21 incinerator but he believed the provision of ultra-fast broadband had the support all the main parties.

"I don't care who makes the decision but somebody's got to make it – even if it is the secretary of state," he said last night.

"There are a number of broadband blackspots in my constituency and this delay is already having an impact."

The SDLP MLA said the investment would be "good for the economy and good for the community".

In July, the Court of Appeal dismissed the Department of Infrastructure's appeal over the quashing of planning permission for a £240 million 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.

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