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UK.gov dangles £10m sweetener over bumpkin broadband hopefuls

'This time, we will fix the roof while the sun is shining'

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Autumn Statement 2013 The government plans to slip £10m into the pockets of outfits willing to test alternative ways to bring superfast broadband access to those bits of Blighty left untouched by BT's fibre-to-the-cabinet technology rollout.

The extra funding was announced ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne's rambunctious Autumn Statement to a raucous House of Commons on Thursday morning.

But he made no mention of it during a budget speech that was somewhat light on investment in technology, compared with previous promises made by the Conservative-led coalition.

Number 11 said [PDF] that the "further capital investment" would be made as part of its National Infrastructure Plan. It added:

A £10m competitive fund [was on offer], opening in 2014, to market test innovative solutions, delivering superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas of the UK.

The government will continue to support local bodies to develop appropriate strategies to procure additional coverage in areas not covered by current plans, using the £250m allocated at Spending Round 2013 to extend superfast broadband to 95 per cent of UK premises by 2017.

Elsewhere in his budget statement, Osborne said that the Treasury would inject £270m into Quantum Technology Centres over the next five years to fund the development of new industries in the likes of quantum computation and secure communication.

He added that a fund of £80m over the next five years would be set aside "for UK scientists and companies to build stronger links with emerging powers in developing space capabilities and technology."

The government is also showing a keen interest in tech that is perhaps most famously being tested by Google: driverless cars. It wants a legislative and regulatory framework in place by the end of 2014 that allows such vehicles to be piloted and developed in the UK.

A £10m "prize fund" is being touted at towns and cities interested in developing a site for consumer testing of driverless cars.

Osborne added during his speech that the government planned to establish a Higgs Centre at Edinburgh University, named in honour of CERN boffin Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame. It will support start ups and academics interested in astronomy and particle physics.

But the chancellor failed to comment on the state of the Department for Work and Pension's Universal Credit project, which has been hamstrung by IT implementation cockups leading to costly write-offs of existing assets.

Earlier today, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) attempted to bury embarrassing news that the one-dole-to-rule-them-all system will not be delivered by 2017 as previously promised.

That point was not lost on a crimson-faced Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who said in his reply to the Autumn Statement that IDS stood for three words: "In Deep Shambles".

Osborne, meanwhile, was clearly buoyed by some bright notes in the economy being highlighted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which led the Chancellor to insist that he would not abandon his plans to try to decrease the deficit further from a revised-down figure of 6.8 per cent of GDP.

He added that growth would now be 1.4 per cent for the year, compared with a miserable 0.6 per cent forecast in March this year. In 2014, growth is now expected to hit 2.4 per cent, according to the latest OBR figures.

The Chancellor, who said he plans to cap overall welfare spending, noted that for Britain to survive in tough economic times it needed to export more of its goods beyond Europe and the US to countries such as China.

Britain's economy may have seen only a small recovery in the past few months, but it was enough for the Chancellor to proclaim: "This time we will fix the roof when the sun is shining." ®

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