Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:43 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage 2:43 pm, 13th September 2016

I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you only showed me a yellow card, not a red card. I will remember that.

What a pleasure it is to speak in what, I gather, is a co-paternity Bill, conceived on many evenings between me and my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale. But I should point out that this is also a vengeful child because five of the nine Ministers who were present in the delivery room are now on the Back Benches or have left Parliament. I hope the Bill is kinder to its adoptive parents.

Let me speak briefly about the most important issue—the introduction of the universal service obligation. What a pleasure it is to hear Members from all parts of the House praise the Minister’s very successful rural broadband programme roll-out, which is bringing superfast broadband to 19 out of 20 homes throughout the UK. They are right to praise it, because it is the most successful Government-sponsored broadband programme in the world, and the Minister should take credit for that achievement.

I received an unsolicited email—it is a rare thing—from the director of the broadband programme in Oxfordshire. He pointed out that Oxfordshire is at 93% with 15 months of the programme still to go. Five million pounds has already come back to the county council from the Government funding and there is £2.8 million further to come—around £8 million of the public sector investment of £40 million, and he thinks that perhaps we will get it all back because of gainshare and take-up. He says:

“I cannot think of any large scale public sector contract which has delivered on time and under cost. Very good contract to work with in protecting the public purse and incentivising successful outcomes.”

I do not have a mains sewer in my house. I recall the comments of my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst. We must remember that the broadband programme is an infrastructure programme. You do not just flick a switch and deliver broadband. You have to dig up roads; you have to do engineering work. Openreach, especially the programme director, Bill Murphy, deserves a huge amount of praise for what has been achieved.

I confess that I am utterly confused by those people who want to break up BT and Openreach. Why would one simply adopt the campaign of BT’s competitors? Why would one wish to break up a highly successful British company, post-Brexit when we need all the champions we can get? Why would one break up a company that has delivered such a successful programme? In the words of the chief executive of Virgin Media, an able competitor to BT, “If you want better broadband, pick up a spade.” That is my message to TalkTalk, Vodafone and Sky, who all seek for their own reasons to break up a great British company.

I have two things to say to the Minister. I firmly believe that Openreach can deliver the USO, but it will need his help in easing regulation, particularly for long line VDSL. I also hope that Broadband Delivery UK will continue its excellent work and become a taskforce. A lot of the 5% that still has to be reached is in inner-city areas, and that is usually because of bureaucratic obstacles stopping the roll-out of broadband which have nothing to do with technical challenges. A good and effective BDUK, helping roll-out in cities, would be hugely helpful.

I echo the calls about the frustration with new build. I remember dealing with Linden Homes in my constituency. For the princely sum of £6,000 it could have delivered broadband to all its customers in a multimillion pound development. It point-blank refused to do so. The attitude of too many developers is shocking. The Government refused to change the planning laws when I was a Minister. Perhaps we should look at that again.

The reforms to the electronic communications code are long overdue; we took far too long to bring them forward. They apply just as much to mobile. I recall mobile operators telling me that when they wished to upgrade a 3G mast to a 4G mast at a site in an airport, the rent went up from £50,000 to £250,000. We must reduce the cost of rolling out broadband infrastructure, whether mobile or fixed, and we cannot have our cake and eat it. I heard Chi Onwurah talking about the loss to the public sector of the £300,000 that Newcastle City Council might lose, but the gain for Newcastle City Council in easing planning restrictions would be better coverage in Newcastle for her constituents and, importantly, for her local businesses, who create jobs and wealth in Newcastle. We cannot allow the landowners to ride roughshod over this Bill, perhaps in the other place. We must reduce the cost of infrastructure roll-out. We need to continue to look at planning reform, particularly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said, with the roll-out of 5G.