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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.”

Business

FSB calls for domestic focus

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LOOKING ahead to the beginning of 2019, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman Mike Cherry, said: “Small business owners tend to be an optimistic bunch. They are used to being nimble, adapting to circumstances and making the most of opportunities. They are creative and entrepreneurial.

“And yet as we head into 2019 small business confidence is on the floor, and desperately needs lifting.

“Of course the political turmoil of recent months and the ongoing lack of clarity about what kind of Brexit they should prepare for is playing a part – particularly around investment decisions.

“Yet there are plenty of headwinds in the coming months which are nothing to do with Brexit whatsoever, which is why politicians should resolve this New Year to re-focus on the domestic issues which affect small businesses day-in-day-out.

“The start of the new financial year in April will see a whole host of changes, leading to higher costs and greater bureaucracy for many small firms – from higher costs of employment to the rollout of quarterly, online tax reporting for VAT-registered firms.

“There are chill winds gusting down our High Streets. Thankfully most town centre and high street small businesses will benefit from relief on their business rates, which FSB fought hard to secure. But many small firms elsewhere will see previous reliefs taper off, and therefore higher bills from this out-dated tax.

“More optimistically, I believe 2019 could be the year in which we finally see poor payment practices by some big businesses to their smaller suppliers and contractors finally stamped out.

“The government recently listened to FSB calls to stop giving lucrative tax-payer-funded contracts to big firms which pay smaller suppliers late or subject them to supply chain bullying.

“I’m hopeful boardrooms will finally do their bit too, with larger firms having a non-executive director specifically responsible for overseeing the fair treatment of suppliers and contractors.

“As Brexit approaches on March 29, the Government must give proper help and support on how to comply with whatever will be required. Adapting to whatever the new trading circumstances with the EU are will mean changing business procedures, taking valuable time out from running a business, and for many, it will involve paying for external expertise.
“Clear advice and support will be needed with a voucher scheme operating as it does in both Ireland and the Netherlands to help small businesses or tax-free allowances.

“Longer term, whatever happens with Brexit, we already have one-in-five small businesses exporting and growing their business through overseas trade. This could be doubled with the right support available to encourage them to take that bold step.

“Back at home, I want to see in 2019 a greater recognition of the vital role small businesses play at the heart of local communities. These businesses don’t just provide goods and services, they bring much more to their local economies; support local charities or football teams; those on high streets bring character and individuality to an area; many provide opportunities for skills training, where an apprentice can benefit from the guidance and expertise of an experienced business owner.

“Smaller businesses are also disproportionately better at employing people from harder-to-reach parts of the workforce – those who have recently left military service; those who have taken time out of working because of caring responsibilities; people with disabilities; and ex-offenders seeking a new life on the straight and narrow.

“I strongly believe that it is in the interests of the country and the economy as a whole that we nurture skills and talent wherever they exist. Education and FE must work more closely with business around the skills needed, and the government could help smaller businesses to do even more in this area with an employer National Insurance holiday for those who employ people furthest from work.

“Even in these uncertain times, there are lots of ways in which the UK’s 5.6 million small businesses can be encouraged and supported to thrive and grow. This is absolutely vital for UK PLC. It’s time for politicians to remind themselves of this, and stop spending so much time on political infighting at the expense of the domestic agenda.”

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Workplace inequality affects economy

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Workplace equality: Could grow economy by 10%

INFLEXIBLE workplace structures, gendered assumptions about childcare, and wide-scale discrimination mean mothers are more likely to be trapped in part-time, low-paid work with fewer opportunities for career progression.

Those are the findings of a National Assembly committee which has been looking at the issue.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee believe such factors are key causes of gender inequality and represent a loss to the economy.
The UK Government’s Women’s Business Council estimates that equalising the employment rates of women and men could grow the UK economy by more than 10% by 2030.

The employment rate for women with dependent children in Wales is 75%, compared to 91% for men with dependent children.

The gender pay gap between men and women in Wales is 15% for all employees (full and part time).

A 2016 survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that Welsh employers lag behind England and Scotland in offering flexible working.

The same survey found that 87% of employers in Wales feel it is in the best interests of organisations to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. But it also found that 71% of mothers reported negative or discriminatory experiences as a result of having children.

Employment law isn’t devolved to Wales but the Committee focused on the levers at the Welsh Government’s disposal including employment of public sector workers and businesses and organisations in receipt of public funding,

“During the course of our inquiry we heard some shocking individual experiences: women who lost their jobs during maternity leave, careers derailed because of the lack of flexible work, and fathers prevented from taking on caring responsibilities because of cultural attitudes,” said John Griffiths AM, Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.

“These stories have directly influenced our conclusions and recommendations.

“Preventing a large proportion of the population from contributing their skills and experience to the workforce is not fair and does not make economic sense.

“In light of technological, social and economic changes, now is the time to modernise workplaces so that they are fit for the future for everyone, not just parents.

“We believe the Welsh Government can set a standard in promoting flexible working, ensuring organisations in receipt of public funding are flexible by default and by reassessing its new childcare offer.”

The Committee makes 34 recommendations in its report, including:

  • That the Welsh Government should advertise public sector jobs (including teaching posts) as ‘flexible by default’, and lead the way by allowing senior roles like Ministers and councillors to be job-shared;
  • Strengthening the obligations on organisations receiving public funding to provide flexible working and report on the retention rates of staff returning from maternity leave;
  • The Committee heard that the Welsh Government’s new Childcare Offer was unlikely to achieve its main aim of increasing maternal employment in the most effective way. It recommended the Government reconsider the target age group and the income threshold; and,
  • the Welsh Government improve advice services in Wales, and that information about rights and obligation at work should be provided to women at an early stage of pregnancy.

The report will now be considered by the Welsh Government.

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Skates makes case for rail

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Rail investment inequitable: Ken Skates demands action

TRANSPORT S​ECRETARY Ken Skates has cited slow speeds, manual Victorian signalling and level crossings bringing traffic to a standstill up to 200 times a day in his call on the UK Government to make available an equitable level of funding for rail infrastructure enhancements in Wales.

In May, Ken Skates announced Cardiff University’s Professor Mark Barry would lead on the case for investment in rail infrastructure in Wales, against the backdrop of the UK Government’s £50bn investment in HS2.

The Transport Secretary summarised the case in the Senedd on Tuesday​ (Jul 17)​.

Ken Skates told Assembly Members: “The initial findings of this work are stark. Wales has not received an equitable share of UK rail investment over a sustained period, denying us the economic benefits enjoyed elsewhere in the UK.

“Network Rail’s Wales Route, which makes up 11% of the network, has received little more than 1% of total spend on enhancements in England and Wales.

“This has resulted in low lines speed on the South Wales Mainline, capacity and speed constraints along the North Wales Coast, infrequent commuter services for the Swansea Bay city region, and inadequate cross-border services in both North and South Wales.

“I continue to support HS2, but call once again on the UK Government to make the right choices to benefit north Wales, and exert pressure on them to mitigate against the probable impact of HS2 on the economy in South Wales.”

The work carried out by Professor Barry highlights the use of old, inefficient, and unreliable infrastructure constraining the number, speed, and quality of services.

“These constraints dampen demand, restrict economic growth, and increase costs to passengers and tax-payers.

“I will continue to set out a broader vision for a successful rail network. One that helps us meet our obligations to the environment, responsibilities for Well-being and Future Generations, delivers the goals of the Economic Action Plan, and meets the UK Government’s commitment to rebalance the economy.

“The work undertaken has identified direct transport user benefits of at least £2bn, generated by reducing journey times for rail passengers. Additional benefits also arise from reduced road congestion leading to environmental and safety improvements.”

James Price, Chief Executive, Transport for Wales said: “The success of the Wales and Borders rail service relies on efficient and reliable infrastructure with the ability to transport more people more efficiently. We look forward to working with the Welsh and UK governments to deliver improvements that meet the needs of passengers in Wales and across the border.”

Cardiff University Professor of Practice in Connectivity, Mark Barry said: “Wales’ railways are stuck in second gear. Long-term under-investment compared to the UK as a whole has left them unfit for purpose.

“It’s no great surprise fewer people in Wales choose to use the train than in the rest of the UK, leading to less efficient rail operations, higher subsidies per passenger and more road congestion. This is a brake on our economic growth, improvement of air quality and carbon reduction.”

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