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What the demise of the Digital Region project says about governance in Yorkshire

August 25, 2013

The demise of the Digital Region project in parts of South Yorkshire it has been widely reported. The project, supported by over £150m of public funds, was supposed to build a superfast broadband network in areas of Yorkshire. The local councils involved supported the project so did Yorkshire Forward and the European Commission. Launched in 2009, the project folded in the last few weeks having acquired just 3,000 customers, that is less than 3 per cent of the number needed to make the project viable. In effect it has cost £51,666 to subsidise each of the customers.

It could be argued that the company were unlucky. At the outset as they made their plans it appeared none of the telecoms providers were interested in setting up such a fast network. As time went on these big players nonetheless were certainly not interested in supporting a potential  competitor and latterly, of course, have their own schemes to sell. What seems apparent though is, as the project less and less viable and soaked up more and more money, the complete lack of business monitoring that went on within Yorkshire Forward or the four local councils involved (Doncaster, Barnsley, Sheffield and Rotherham) or, indeed, by the Minister for Yorkshire at the time. Maybe they were just all too chummy with each other or maybe as the former Mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies said: “The council leaders involved thought they were businessmen, but the way the project has gone proves they wouldn’t know how to run a whelk stall.”

Perhaps a couple of conclusions can be drawn from this fiasco. One, is that local councils, despite good intentions, are not equipped financially or in terms of skill set to be the drivers of the economy in Yorkshire (this also has implications for LEPs about which more another day). The second is that although the RDA (Yorkshire Forward) can be credited with some good works in the region, nonetheless, it was also liable to have a some shockers.

There are those who think that economic growth in Yorkshire would be best served by a return of Yorkshire Forward. The Digital Region experience would indicate otherwise. For the most part Yorkshire Forward was lacking both good governance and accountability.  And that is the final conclusion to be drawn. An open, transparent, democratically elected Yorkshire Assembly would provide those things Yorkshire Forward was unable to and yet be the heart of the economic growth so badly needed.

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