Just 15 masts have been put up by the £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project, unveiled by George Osborne back in 2011 - when 600 were promised.
Now Ed Vaizey, the digital economy minister, has told MPs criticising the tortuously slow progress of the scheme: “I am guilty as charged.
“I do not think the programme has been a success - and I do not think that ministers often say that about their programmes.”
During a Commons debate, Mr Vaizey agreed that “mobile phones are essential to many people in their daily lives”.
He added: “We set aside £150m. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place.”
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has decided to wrap up the Mobile Infrastructure Project next month, at the end of its original three-year timescale.
The move threatens to leave a pledge to deliver mobile phone coverage to 60,000 more remote premises across the UK - out of 80,000 in known ‘not-spots’ - in tatters.
When the scheme got underway, in 2013, ministers promised it would “help connect rural communities, create local jobs and contribute to economic growth”.
The “infrastructure and media services company” Arqiva was appointed to deliver the project and the big four mobile network operators pledged to provide their services.
The £150m fund was intended to pay for the infrastructure, while the mobile phone companies funded each site’s operating costs for a 20-year lifespan.
Mr Vaizey pointed to problems with the mobile phone companies, local planners and local residents to explain the project’s failure.
One council, Wiltshire, spent so long arguing about the colour of a mast that it missed the deadline for planning approval.
The minister said: “We were dragging four operators with us, metaphorically kicking and screaming.
“We have had communities campaigning against masts and putting concrete blocks in front of the base stations to prevent any further work.”
But, Mr Vaizey insisted, the spread of 4G technology was expected to cut the area of ‘not spots’ to as low as two per cent and that of partial ‘not spots’ to about 12 per cent.
Conservative backbencher John Glen, the MP for Salisbury, said: “The situation is extraordinarily frustrating.
“By December 2015, a couple of months ago, the project had cost £9.1m and only 15 masts were live.”
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