THE SNP’s flagship £600 million pledge to bring superfast broadband to every home and office in the country could be delivered three years late, it has emerged.

It is the latest blow to the “R100 programme”, which has been beset by contractual delays.

It puts a question mark over the future of Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, who last year vowed to quit if the R100 target date of 2021 was missed.

“If I don’t deliver this by 2021, I think it will be time for Fergus Ewing to depart and do something else, and leave the job to somebody else. But I can assure you, we’re on the case,” he told the Scottish Land and Estates conference.

In her 2016 manifesto for Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon promised to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage for Scotland by the end of the next Parliament”.

Initially set for spring 2021, the target later slipped to the end of 2021. However, a new Scottish Government procurement document says ministers still need “key management resources to assist in the delivery of the Reaching 100% Programme successfully over the next four years”, taking it to 2023.

It also says the “deployment tranche” could last another year, taking it to 2024.

The Government last night refused to put a definitive date on the programme but said it had been forced “to build in a degree of flexibility”, including “extending timelines”.

The R100 programme has suffered a series of delays in arranging contractors to install 30Mbps+ connections to the most remote corners of the country.

BT plc was the sole bidder for the Central and South of Scotland areas, but there was competition for the final North area contract which caused more delays, and ended with BT being named as the preferred bidder there as well.

The contracts are still not finalised.

Paul Wheelhouse, the minister in charge of the policy, last month admitted it would “be challenging to meet the 2021 deadline”, but refused to admit defeat.

But the new Government document reveals ministers last month awarded a £5m contract for “the provision of five individuals to assist with the Reaching 100% Programme”, and that: “The contract will be for a period of 48 months with the option to extend for an additional 12 months.

“Scottish Government has set out a clear commitment – unique in the UK context – that every premise across Scotland should be able to access superfast broadband by 2021.

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“This commitment was a key part of Scotland’s refreshed Digital Strategy “Realising Scotland’s Full Potential In A Digital World” published 22 March 2017.

“The Scottish Government requires the following key management resources to assist in the delivery of the Reaching 100% Programme successfully over the next 4 years: contract delivery lead, aligned interventions lead, programme manager, two deployment managers.”

The job went to East Lothian firm Independent Intelligence Ltd, which says it is delivering “key senior resource and leadership” to R100 .

Tory infrastructure spokesman Jamie Green MSP said: “It has been quite clear for a while now that the SNP was going to miss their flagship 2021 superfast target, but now they have been caught red handed trying to sneak this delay out to avoid admitting failure.

“It’s typical of the SNP to over-promise and under deliver, which leaves our remote and rural communities at a significant disadvantage.

“Whilst the UK government gets on with delivering a country-wide Universal Service Obligation, the SNP, in a desperate bid to out-trump the UK, has spectacularly failed to deliver on its own unachievable promise.

“Fergus Ewing, the Rural Secretary, famously said he would resign if the Scottish Government did not meet its target on this, I wonder if he has started job hunting already?”

South Scotland Labour MSP Colin Smyth said: “It’s the worst kept secret in the world that the Scottish Government is not going to deliver R100 by 2021.

“We are going to continue the digital divide, with rural communities have super-slow rather than superfast broadband. It’s time the Government came clean and said exactly what their new target date is.”

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Highlands & Islands Tory MSP Edward Mountain said he feared the north of Scotland would not be fully connected to superfast broadband until at least 2026.

He added: “I’d be happy to lend Fergus Ewing a pen to write his resignation.”

The Government said: “By confirming BT plc as the preferred bidder for all three geographic lots, we have taken a significant step towards completing the procurement process.

“As with any procurement of this scale, the process is a complex one and we have had to build in a degree of flexibility to respond to a range of circumstances.

“This has included extending timelines and allowing for a pause at key parts of the process at the request of the bidders.

“This contract is for the resourcing of the R100 delivery team. The length of that contract does not correlate directly with the date of R100 deployment, as payments and policy activity will continue in arrears of physical deployment -similarly to the DSSB programme. We are unable to comment on details of BT’s proposals at this time due to the ongoing confidentiality surrounding negotiations.

“The Scottish Government is now working with BT plc to finalise contracts, with a view to outlining coverage outcomes and delivery timescales as soon as possible after contract signature.”