During a lengthy discussion around the Broadband Working Group at the Regeneration and Community Committee meeting, councillors supported proposals expressing concern over the Department for the Economy’s (DfE) change of position in relation to Project Stratum which will extend broadband across Northern Ireland.

They also agreed to seek legal advice on the possibility of getting a judicial review into the process of Project Stratum.

At a previous meeting with DfE officials, councillors expressed their concerns that the most disadvantaged areas in broadband coverage were not being prioritised and the department’s value for money approach went against what was initially promised.

Ulster Unionist Councillor Alex Baird questioned how the department could change their process after what was negotiated under the Confidence and Supply agreement.

“Unfortunately I’m not on the broadband working group but I was on it. When I was on it we had a presentation from Arlene Foster who explained to us about the 150(sic) Confidence and Supply and what it was for and my recollection is she was quite clear at the time it was for nought and low area, low reception areas. There was no mention at the time of the value for money. It was to right the wrongs that has been done to those of us especially in the west and in Fermanagh.”

Alison McCullagh, Director of Regeneration and Planning in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council told councillors that in the absence of a minister the Permanent Secretary for the Department is required to value for money and that areas which are not chosen in Project Stratum will be defined as “left behinds” and will be picked up in Project Stratum Two and she said that there were contradictions in what information the Broadband Working Group had received to date.

“Firstly this value for money that’s been talked about seems to be open to interpretation from the civil servants and their interpretation seems to be that the people of Fermanagh and Omagh and indeed Mid Ulster council regions aren’t as valuable as people in Derry or Belfast or any other regions so that’s absolutely unacceptable and fair play to everyone who was there last night at the meeting but they absolutely have to be held to account to that,” said Sinn Féin’s Chris McCaffrey.

“Is there a case to get a legal opinion of taking a judicial review of how a civil servant, a private secretary or whatever is interpreting something that is seemingly completely against the spirit of the law?” asked Councillor Sheamus Greene.

Mrs. McCullagh said the Council could seek legal opinion before commenting: “One comment I would make Chair certainly is my clear understanding and the figure that I had heard and certainly what was quoted to us including by Mrs. Foster was £150million for the provision of ultra fast broadband in rural communities.

“Now ultra fast does have specific speed connotations which are over 30 and I know as soon, well my understanding is as soon as the Department heard that they became somewhat concerned because it could mean that rural areas actually had an economic advantage over many urban settings but we can certainly seek an opinion in the first instance to see what the prospects of success might be.”

Cross Community Labour alternative Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh took aim at the Confidence and Supply Agreement saying it reminded him of the word of Edward Carson in 1921: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet and so was Ulster and so was Ireland in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

The DUP’s Deborah Armstrong said that although councillors had seen the DfE “changing the goalposts” the money secured for Northern Ireland by her party should be celebrated however Sinn Féin Councillor Anne Marie Fitzgerald said that they shouldn’t have to celebrate funding that they were entitled to.

The Department said it fully appreciates the impact of poor broadband on local communities, particularly in rural areas of Northern Ireland which remains a key focus and priority for the Department.

“Project Stratum seeks to utilise the £150m additional broadband funding from the Confidence and Supply Agreement to improve internet connectivity, primarily in rural areas, for those premises currently unable to access services of 30 Mbps or greater. Further funding of £15m has been provided by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), bringing total available public funding for Project Stratum to £165m,” a Department spokesperson said.

“Project Stratum is a significant public investment and DfE will seek to maximise the number of premises to benefit from the public investment, utilising the full £165m of available funding, and encouraging industry to contribute further through investment.

“It should be noted that the Department’s position is unchanged, in that it views the entire intervention area as a priority, given that analysis shows that 90 per cent of the Project Stratum intervention area is officially rural, defined as ‘Band H’ – villages with a population less than 1,000 and premises in open countryside. Furthermore, DfE’s analysis shows that approximately two thirds of rural premises in the intervention area cannot access broadband services any higher than 15 Mbps. It is for these reasons that DfE aims to maximise overall broadband coverage by utilising all available funding and encouraging industry to contribute further through investment, in order to reach as many premises as possible across Northern Ireland, in line with the aspirations referenced in the Confidence & Supply Agreement, and fully aligned to UK Government policy. “