Blackdown Hills Parish Network (BHPN) in Devon & Somerset

DCMS have excluded Devon & Somerset from an estimated £30M of Project Gigabit investment before 2025, after Devon and Somerset County Councils told DCMS that their planned direct investment would interfere with the County Councils’ ongoing delayed Phase 2 rural broadband roll out across the two counties and that the two County Councils would do a better job than DCMS of contracting with potential suppliers, if Project Gigabit funding were handed to them to run the programme, rather than DCMS managing procurement directly from 100 Parliament Street, SW1A.


The Blackdown Hills Parish Network (BHPN) ( is a coalition of the 39 parish councils that sit within the rural Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and which straddles the border between Devon & Somerset. Run by representatives from the 39 parish councils, the BHPN seeks to address issues of common concern to the 39 parish councils and since it’s inception, rural connectivity and in particular high speed broadband have been high on the list of issues that the BHPN addresses. Oral evidence has been given to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee; meetings have been held in Whitehall with Digital Minister Matt Warman (since replaced by Chris Philp MP) and the issue of poor rural broadband provision has been raised at regular meetings with the two MPs whose constituencies span the AONB, Rebecca Pow MP and Neil Parish MP. In addition, there have been exchanges with Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) and CDS’s principals, Devon & Somerset County Councils.

The Issue:

In meetings with the BHPN this year and last, the then Digital Minister, Matt Warman agreed that Devon & Somerset are amongst the slowest counties in the UK to complete their rural Phase 2 Superfast broadband roll out (currently slated for completion in 2025). This is because CDS have on four previous occasions, published open tender invitations for rural Phase 2 Superfast roll out and then subsequently withdrawn them. In addition, following the successful award of contracts they have subsequently cancelled those contracts and started again from square one. This has created up to eight years of delay for rural taxpayers in the Blackdown Hills AONB hoping to see their single digit broadband speeds improve. Some residents will still be waiting for those improvements until 2025 and beyond.

When the first two tranches of £1.2B Project Gigabit investment were announced by the then DCMS Minister, Oliver Dowden on March 19, 2021 (since replaced by Nadine Dorries MP), it was hoped that rural Devon & Somerset would benefit from this BDUK managed ultrafast broadband infrastructure investment, but Devon & Somerset are unique in the south west of England having been excluded from both tranches of funding before 2025, announced on March 19. The surrounding counties of Cornwall, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Hampshire will all benefit from Project Gigabit investment before 2025, estimated at an average of £15M per county.

The March 19 announcement followed a call for comment issued by DCMS on December 22nd, 2020 to their document “Planning for Gigabit Delivery in 2021”, which included draft Project Gigabit large and small deployment areas in both Devon and Somerset. By the time the first two trances of Project Gigabit investment were announced on March 19 by Oliver Dowden, those draft deployment areas in Devon & Somerset before 2025 had been removed from the programme.

The BHPN submitted a Freedom of Information request to DCMS in April 2021 for a copy of the response made by Devon & Somerset County Councils to the Dec 22 Planning for Project Gigabit publication. From this, the BHPN learned that Connecting Devon & Somerset officer Phil Roberts made a submission on behalf of CDS and the two county councils on January 22nd 2021. That submission challenges the wisdom of DCMS running Project Gigabit procurements centrally, claiming that such procurements would interfere with CDS’s delayed Phase 2 rural Superfast procurements and asserts that if DCMS hands Project Gigabit funding to CDS for the two counties, they would do a better job of Project Gigabit roll out than DCMS could do by contracting directly with suppliers.

It was hardly surprising therefore that Oliver Dowden excluded Devon and Somerset from the first tranches of Project Gigabit funding before 2025 in his announcement of March 19, although no-one in DCMS, CDS, BDUK, Devon CC, Somerset CC or our MPs will confirm that Phil Roberts submission caused DCMS to exclude Devon and Somerset from this first £1.2B of Project Gigabit investment. This is in marked contrast to how Dorset Council (and many other county councils) responded to the Planning for Gigabit Delivery in 2021 document saying “How much investment can we get?” and “How soon can we get that investment?”.

Subsequent meetings with Devon and Somerset MPs, the then Digital Minister Matt Warman and BDUK officers have all resulted in platitudes but no change to DCMS’s plans to exclude Devon & Somerset from Project Gigabit investment before 2025.

Following the UK’s departure from the EU and the removal of EU State Aid Rules, Project Gigabit contracts will be let and managed centrally from DCMS/BDUK in London for the whole of England, unlike the Superfast contracts which were required by the EU to be let and managed by county councils, funding being provided by DCMS. More than ten years ago, Devon & Somerset County Councils created Connecting Devon & Somerset to let and manage broadband procurements for the two counties, making their Superfast contracts the biggest broadband contracts in England, a fact frequently repeated by CDS, but as confirmed by Matt Warman they are also the slowest programmes in England to complete their Phase 2 rural broadband roll out.

The consequence of Project Gigabit procurement being carried out centrally by DCMS is that CDS will be out of the loop on Project Gigabit procurement and they loose their reason for existence once Phase 2 rural Superfast contracts are completed. This fact does not seem to worry other counties such as Dorset. The comments made by CDS in response to the December 22 draft for Project Gigabit delivery in 2021 indicate that CDS and the two county councils put their need for CDS to continue in existence and own and manage Project Gigabit contracts above the need for improved broadband connectivity for Devon and Somerset taxpayers. (See Appendix)

Pro-rating the £1.2B Project Gigabit investment up until 2025 by population suggests that Dorset will receive £13.8M of Project Gigabit investment, Cornwall £13.8M, Wiltshire £11.6M and Gloucestershire £15.6M. Whilst Devon & Somerset will now get nothing from this £1.2B programme before 2025 it seems likely that had Phil Roberts January 22 submission to DCMS been as positive as Dorset’s was, Devon & Somerset could possibly have received an additional £30M of broadband investment focused on rural areas before 2025.

The way forward.

As stated above, raising these issues with our MPs, with DCMS Ministers, and with Devon and Somerset County Councils has only generated platitudes but no Project Gigabit broadband investment for the two counties before 2025 as will now happen in all neighbouring counties. This highlights a failure of our democracy. Elected MPs, Ministers and Councillors have listened sympathetically to these concerns, however it is clear to the apolitical BHPN that being members of the same political party in Devon & Somerset, political tribalism prevents any “rocking of the boat” for like minded colleagues, be they in central or local government. Surely, such political considerations should be put aside when allocating critical infrastructure investment of this kind.

For the last 18 months, Coronavirus has made it clear to all of us how important broadband connectivity is, but in rural areas that connectivity is if anything more urgently needed than in urban areas, public transport in rural areas being all but non existent and many critical services, including GP access, having migrated on line. It is however in just such rural areas of Devon & Somerset that a turf war between central government and the county councils over who owns the Project Gigabit programme, has resulted in much needed additional broadband investment not taking place for the next four years in the two counties.

Unlike other Select Committees, the PAC, by tradition, is chaired by a member of an opposition political party and this gives the BHPN hope that today’s PAC, chaired by Dame Meg Hillier MP, may act on our concerns and challenge the government’s current exclusion of Devon and Somerset from Project Gigabit investment before 2025.