Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Conservative, Richmond (Yorks) 4:22 pm, 13th September 2016

The average smartphone user in the UK uses their device for more than two hours daily. So, when we talk about rural communities without access to a mobile signal, let us be absolutely clear about what we mean. We are talking about the fact that people in swathes of our country are unable to participate in an activity that the rest of us consider so indispensable and so vital that we engage in it for 10 minutes of every waking hour.

The Bill before us today contains two important steps towards closing that gap. The first is action to reform the electronic communications code to reduce land rents and to free up capital to invest in infrastructure, and the second is Ofcom’s new powers to capitalise on the opportunities for dynamic spectrum access.

Let me turn first to the provisions for reducing the cost of land used by mobile operators. In going beyond the Law Commission’s recommendations and moving wayleave valuation to a compulsory purchase basis, the Government have acted boldly in the public interest. This one change will do the following: reduce rental costs; tackle the vexatious issue of ransom rents; and begin to close the gap between the rent for an electric pylon—in the hundreds of pounds—and that of a mobile telecoms mast—up to the tens of thousands of pounds.

Let me be clear: some of my constituents will lose out from this Bill. It is no secret that small rural businesses, farmers and landowners have benefited from the extra income that renting land to mobile infrastructures can provide. It is an important source of income, and I take very seriously the concerns of the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. What is equally plain, however, is that, in boosting investment in rural coverage, the potential benefits to rural communities can outweigh those costs. We must not expect the rural people whose income will be reduced by this Bill to receive nothing in return. The analogy is made with the compulsory purchase powers in the utility and energy infrastructure side of our country. However, the National Grid is a regulated asset, which means that any cost savings it enjoys as a result of compulsory purchase powers are automatically, by regulation, passed on to customers. In the case of the mobile operators, that is not necessarily so. Interfering with property rights, as the code does, is a major step for this House to endorse. I therefore urge the Government to ensure that the Bill benefits not just the network operators’ balance sheets, but the public interest. Operators will save hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of these changes, and in return there are a few things the Government can do to keep their feet to the fire. First, the Government can ensure that they live up to the obligations of mobile coverage that, by 2017, 98% of UK households have access to 4G and 90% of our land mass is covered by voice and text.