THE first phase of a multi-million pound scheme to provide access to super-fast broadband across the North-East is to be rolled out ahead of schedule.

Almost 9,000 homes and businesses in 12 towns and villages will benefit when work begins in March as part of the Digital Durham project, a month earlier than planned.

Under the £24m project, Durham County Council and seven other North-East Councils are working with BT to provide the super-fast service to areas that would otherwise miss out.

By the end of 2016, 94 per cent of properties across the region should have access to download speeds of between 24Mbps and 80Mbps. In County Durham that figure will be 96 per cent.

Phil Jackman, Durham County Council's head of ICT, said the start of first phase work on the Digital Durham project was a step forward.

But he added that the aim across the county was to provide all residents and businesses with access to super-fast broadband.

After several stalled attempts to lodge a bid with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for just over £1m under the Government's Rural Community Broadband Fund to extend access to remote areas of upper Teesdale and Weardale, a final effort to secure the money will be submitted by the end of February.

Mr Jackman said he was confident of success and this would extend super-fast coverage to 98 per cent of the county.

The council is also hoping to work with BT to secure extra money from another Government scheme to test alternative solutions in an effort to bring super-fast broadband to about 120 properties in Forest-in-Teesdale and Whorlton, near Barnard Castle, which cannot be reached by conventional means.

“The start of the Digital Durham roll-out is good news – we will have some cabinets going live in Teesdale next month – but our overall aim remains 100 per cent access to super-fast broadband,” said Mr Jackman.

Areas covered by phase one of Digital Durham are: Bishop Auckland, Cockfield, Consett, Durham, Sacriston, Sherburn Hill, Shildon, Spennymoor, Staindrop, Thornley, West Auckland and Willington.

Durham County Council chairman Councillor Pauline Charlton – whose Evenwood ward covers Cockfield – said: “This will make a difference to people here. People in Cockfield have struggled with the broadband service they receive.

“We are in a remote area and this will hopefully solve a big problem.”