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Superfast roll out by councils is superslow

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Damaging businesses: Nine Welsh councils have no broadband plan

AN INVESTIGATION by broadband comparison website, BroadbandChoices, which analysed almost four hundred UK council websites and Ofcom performance statistics, has revealed that many councils have missed their own targets and deadlines for improving broadband connectivity in their areas.

And only one of Wales’ 22 councils – Newport – has hit the target; while nine have no plan at all.

The research reveals that many councils fall drastically short of targets set to provide superfast connectivity. Just 12 out of the 391 UK Councils analysed have reached 95% levels of superfast broadband penetration or higher, the UKs target. It also revealed that only 7 councils in the UK have met the targets for broadband speeds they set themselves.

The latest analysis from BroadbandChoices highlights how much work must still be done by Councils to provide sufficient connectivity to all homes and businesses in the UK, regardless of location.

With broadband speeds affecting small businesses, rural communities and those who work from home, internet speeds have a significant impact on productivity and can cost businesses money, time and even customers or clients and are costing businesses thousands in lost productivity.

The average percentage of premises with superfast broadband speeds has been revealed to be just 58% based on Ofcom’s report – nearly 40% lower than the 95% UK-wide target. The research also reveals that almost a quarter (24%) of councils don’t have a publicly available strategy when it comes to broadband.

After reviewing 391 council plans for broadband outlined on each council’s website and comparing them with actual broadband performance levels as compiled by Ofcom2 the research also revealed that the percentage of premises with access to superfast broadband ranges from just 11% in some jurisdictions, to 98% in others. This dramatic discrepancy in connectivity means some council areas have 87% fewer homes able to access superfast broadband yet no clear plans in place to improve performance.

The research exposes how the majority of councils in the UK under-estimated how long it would take to make superfast broadband available to premises within their borough. Sixty-seven councils were found to have failed to meet the targets they set themselves within the timeframes they identified.

The findings suggest that many councils in the UK have failed to make superfast broadband a priority. Surprisingly, 122 councils have information about plans to extend broadband penetration on their websites but exact details regarding reach and performance are inadequate. Broadband Choices research found vague claims in an unquantifiable format or without a specific target date for completing the work. Meanwhile, many other councils failed to even reference broadband on their websites.

The volume of ongoing council plans demonstrates that many councils are still working towards achieving widespread connectivity in their areas, and that more work still needs to be done to reach the UK Government target of 95% coverage for superfast broadband, despite some reports that it has already been achieved.

Vix Leyton, home comms expert at Broadband Choices said: “This study demonstrates that while many UK councils have active plans in place to improve connectivity for their residents, very few have succeeded in actually meeting their targets. Meanwhile, areas with the most need have councils who are failing to recognise good internet connectivity as a strategic priority.

“Whilst our research gives a broad stroke picture of the UK by comparing council intention to reported performance, a lot of consumers are still in the dark when it comes to the actual service and speed they will personally receive until after they have signed up for a deal. Broadband Choices has been lobbying for some time to inform consumer purchasing, using things like the postcode checker tool, to ensure that in the face of different reports about performance they will get a clear and honest picture of the position their home or business is in.

“Access to technology is a staple requirement and reliance on high-quality connectivity will only increase. That’s why we’re helping to educate consumers so they are better aware of the broadband available in their area, and what plans their local Council has in place to keep up with technology. Councils should have their plans and target deadlines clearly outlined on their website for constituents to see, and if targets haven’t been met this needs to be addressed and reviewed, and residents are entitled to know why.”

“The lack of superfast broadband has a combined impact on productivity and communication, which is a real concern, translating into a loss for small businesses, and communities. Councils need to do more to improve connectivity to protect the productivity of the UK workforce.”

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Business

Welsh Government releases additional £100M business support

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The latest phase of the Welsh Government’s Economic Resilience Fund has benefited from the release of a further £100million from ministers within 72 hours of launch, due to a massive demand.

More than 6,000 grant applications from small and medium sized businesses and social enterprises were received within 24 hours of the launch on Friday – an unprecedented response, revealing the scale of the challenges facing Welsh businesses.

The Fund aims to complement and fill the gaps left by UK Government schemes such as the Job Retention Scheme, with grants of up to £10,000 for micro-enterprises and up to £100,000 for SMEs and a light touch appraisal system designed to get money to businesses with the minimum of delay – as well as a new loan fund administered by the Development Bank of Wales.

Less than three weeks since the First Minister announced the intention to create the Fund, the Welsh Government has released a further £100 million, taking the grant fund to £300 million. This will supplement this latest phase of support, providing non-repayable grants to microbusinesses, SMEs and those large businesses of critical, social or economic importance to Wales.

The Fund has been warmly received by trade union and business organisations, with the Institute of Directors calling it ‘very welcome news for business owners and managers who are desperate for all the help they can get at this difficult time’. The South and Mid Wales Chambers of Commerce has called ‘the rapid response to date’ of the Welsh Government in supporting the economy of Wales ‘impressive’. The Wales TUC welcomed ‘additional funding to address the gaps’.

Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales Ken Skates said:  “We knew that even with the help offered by initiative such as the Job Retention Scheme, there was a massive need for quick access to grant funding if Welsh businesses were to survive this unprecedented economic shock. Whilst in order to make the scheme quick and simple we needed to take tough decisions over eligibility – like requiring businesses to be registered for VAT as a way of having to check on their trading history – it is clear from the level of response received that the Economic Resilience Fund is plugging a gap in UK Government support and providing much needed financial reassurance to many businesses at this challenging time. We will continue to review support and consider how we can develop it over the coming days.

“The rate of applications has been massive and unprecedented. This is the second time in a matter of weeks that access to Welsh Government funds aimed at easing cash flow pressures for Welsh business have quickly reached capacity, and we have responded with pace to release a further £100m into this phase of the fund.

“In these difficult and demanding economic times we have worked hard to free up resources to create such a large Fund despite the huge demands on our budget, and to strike a balance between supporting as many enterprises as possible and making a meaningful contribution to each one’s survival, as well as asking each recipient to sign up to the principles of the economic contract.

“Though we applaud much of what the UK Government has done, there is an urgent need to see more of the promised lending guaranteed by the UK Government getting to the front line. The UK Government must continue to support and press the high street banks to be much more responsive to the needs of our businesses at this difficult time.”

Finance Minister Rebecca Evans said: “The Economic Resilience Fund is part of more than £2bn of support that we have made available to help businesses and charities during these incredibly difficult times.

“We know that support for business is crucially important but whilst we are doing everything we can in Wales to plug any gaps and provide the best possible financial support to businesses, it is clear there are further steps that the UK Government needs to urgently take.”

The Economic Resilience offers financial support to help businesses, charities and social enterprises deal with the coronavirus crisis and will be vital in helping organisations manage cash flow pressures. It is a unique additional funding stream for Wales and was designed to address gaps not currently met by schemes already announced by the UK Government, Welsh Government and Development Bank of Wales.

The first stage of the Fund saw the £100 million Development Bank of Wales’ loan scheme fully subscribed in little more than a week. Applications are currently being processed and some businesses have already received funding. It is anticipated that the Development Bank will have processed all applications received within the month.

To ensure that money reaches businesses as quickly as possible more than 120 additional Welsh Government and Business Wales staff have been diverted onto processing applications and supporting businesses and organisations in this latest stage of the Fund.

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Business

Business rates relief scheme extended

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A further £23m in business rates relief: Announced by Rebecca Evans AS

WELSH GOVERNMENT Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans AS, has extended a business rates relief scheme.
In a written statement to the Senedd last week, the Minister announced a further twelve months’ support for all retailers in Wales with a rateable value of up to £50,000.
As a result, the Welsh Government will now provide over £1/4bn in rates reliefs for businesses.
The additional money will be fully funded by the Welsh Government and will provide support of up to £2,500 towards the rates bills for retail properties with a rateable value of up to £50,000.
It will reduce rates bills to zero for retail properties with a rateable value up to £9,100 and reduce bills by £2,500 for properties with a higher rateable value.
As well as supporting retailers on the high street, the scheme will continue to support retailers in other locations. Ratepayers benefitting from the relief include those with occupied retail premises such as shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and wine bars.
A further £2.4m will be allocated to local authorities to provide additional discretionary rates relief for local businesses and other ratepayers to respond to specific local issues. This funding will be provided through the local government settlement, taking the total being provided to local authorities for discretionary relief to £4.8m for 2020-21.
The scheme will continue to be administered by local authorities on an application basis and operates in addition to other support provided by the Welsh Government. This means that while local authorities will collect the business rates, at a cost to the local Council Taxpayer, they have little or no say in how the money collected from business rates feeds back into or supports the communities from which it is collected.
While the Welsh Government continues to tinker at the edges of business rates, as The Herald reported before Christmas there is a widespread call for the whole system to be overhauled.
In November, the Treasury Select Committee published its report on business rates.
It acknowledged the burden the current regime poses for businesses of all sectors and sizes and that it is no longer fit for purpose. It also agreed that business rates deter investment.
One solution, a commercial landowner levy based on the land value of commercial sites rather than their capital value, would shift the burden from tenants to landlords. Such a radical reform seems highly unlikely as long as the Treasury has its hooks into the billions raised by business rates. In practice, unless regulation was strict, it would enhance the desirability of obtaining tax benefits by leaving commercial sites vacant.
At the last election, every political party agreed that business rates needed reform.
Labour’s Mid and West Regional AMs Eluned Morgan and Joyce Watson welcomed the announcement.
They said as well as supporting retailers on the high street, the scheme will continue to support retailers in other locations including restaurants, cafes and public houses.
Eluned Morgan AM said: “Across Wales, 15,000 small and medium businesses will be supported in the new financial year”
Joyce Watson AM said: “I welcome this latest announcement to support local businesses. It will reduce rates bills to zero for retail properties with a rateable value up to £9,100 and support of up to £2,500 towards the rates bill for retail properties with a rateable value up to £50,000.”
Dave Matthews, who runs the Oasis bookshop in Whitland welcomed the continued support being offered saying: “We are very happy about this continuation. Oasis is much more than a shop in Whitland, it’s a drop-in centre for the community too. What makes what we do sustainable is the fact that our business is supported by this continued rate relief.”

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Business

Really Wild Festival returns

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A FESTIVAL that celebrates all things inspired by nature and rural life is returning to St Davids on Saturday, May 30.
The multi-award-winning Really Wild Food and Countryside Festival will be held at Oriel y Parc Gallery and Visitor Centre from 10am-5pm on May 30, returning to the site where the event originated in 2004.
Founded in 2004, the Festival is a friendly, informal and fun event that celebrates rural life, food and country crafts. It also provides producers and growers with the opportunity to showcase their products to businesses and visitors.
Oriel y Parc Manager, Claire Bates said: “Spaces will be allocated to stall-holders on a first-come, first-served basis. To maintain the original ethos of the festival, the products on display or for sale will need to include ingredients from the wild or have a very close connection with the countryside.
“We’re committed to hosting an event that minimises our impact on the environment and are encouraging stall-holders to reduce or reuse non-biodegradable plastics wherever possible.
“Application forms are now available for producers, businesses and charities who wish to attend the event. Please note the deadline for applications is April 1.”
The festival will be held in and around the Oriel y Parc grounds and will be free to enter, with a small fee for some activities.
For more information including booking forms for concessions and exhibitors visit www.orielyparc.co.uk/reallywild.
To discuss your application email reallywild@pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk or call 01437 720392.

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