Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:09 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Ranil Jayawardena Ranil Jayawardena Conservative, North East Hampshire 8:09 pm, 10th July 2017

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and cogent point. He is right to champion the interests of all the United Kingdom, which is why the universal service obligation is so important. The obligation, I am sure the Minister will agree, is only the first step towards ensuring that Britain is the most competitive country and is the place where businesses based elsewhere in the world want to do business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills also noted, that is even more important in a post-Brexit world. We must ensure that we are absolutely match fit and ready to go in the next century, which is why it is important that every household has a legal right to request a fast broadband connection.

As has become customary in our Wednesday exchanges, I will reference points raised by my constituents. This is not a maiden speech, but Hazeley Lea, a lovely part of my constituency, gets less than half a megabit per second, which is totally unacceptable. Worse, residents say that they have too much downtime because the current connection—part-copper, part-fibre—is unreliable. It is not just homes, individuals and families but diversified rural businesses that are affected. One constituent says:

“Just yesterday, I saw a third visit this week by Openreach to my immediate neighbour. I took the opportunity to talk to the engineer on site who confirmed there was a major problem perhaps with old underground cabling to the area simply giving up. He also confirmed that none of the line managers are likely to take this further because of the costs to BT to supply new cabling.”

That demonstrates that what the Government are trying to do is right. Not only are they addressing the old underground cabling that is simply giving up—the cabling was introduced many, many years ago for technologies that are now old-fashioned, as my hon. Friend Helen Whately said—but they are tackling the costs that apply to businesses through business rates and other regulatory matters. The costs, particularly business rates, have been prohibitive in helping businesses to invest.

I was on a British-American Parliamentary Group visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the weather was almost as good as it has been here recently. Importantly, I found out that a £70 million grant had got local people—Chattanooga has a population of just over 500,000—not 24 megabits per second, which is the UK Government’s measure of success in this phase of superfast broadband, but 1 gigabit per second through providing fibre to the premises, not just fibre to the cabinet. That is what the Government are trying to do, and it is the way forward.

Coming back across the pond to Stratfield Saye, the seat of the Duke of Wellington, the exchange there is a problem because, at present, the broadband connection given to my constituents, and undoubtedly to the Duke of Wellington, comes from Mortimer across the county boundary in Berkshire, instead of from Bramley in my constituency and the county of Hampshire. Naturally, Bramley is much closer to Stratfield Saye than Mortimer will ever be. Indeed, the length of cabling required from the exchange to the home would be cut in half if the connection were provided from Bramley. That shows the lack of flexibility in the system. We need to ensure that there is the right technology in the right places to serve people in the 21st century, not the convenience of telecommunications operators from the 20th century.

Some people in Bramley are nearer Chineham in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, but none the less they are connected by cables from Bramley. Those cables are actually steel, not copper, because apparently when the cables were installed by BT, then state-owned—I do not know whether the Labour party plans to renationalise BT, too—[Interruption.] Jim McMahon says it is a possibility, so perhaps he would like to clarify the matter at the Dispatch Box. The point I was making was that BT simply said, “It is all right, we don’t have to face any competition. We’ll just shove some steel cabling in there and it doesn’t matter what happens to local people.” Of course when we were talking about telephone and analogue technology, that was fine, but we are in this new digital age now and we need to make sure people have the right technology to their doorstep. That is why we must tackle this head-on.

I do not want to be totally critical of BT, as it has done a lot of good work in enabling a lot of cabinets and coming up with flexibility in the way those things are delivered. For example, in the parish of Ellisfield in my constituency BT came up with a match funding scheme that said, “If the community can raise some of the money, we will put in the other half.” That is a very innovative scheme for a community so rural that it made this commercially unviable to deliver. But therein lies the problem: no one should be penalised for accessing what is now a utility, as my hon. Friend Amanda Milling rightly said—people should be able to expect this. Charging people £558 per dwelling not only is on the cusp of what BT might ordinarily provide as a commercial arrangement, but it was penalising residents in rural areas for living where they do.