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

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is right: this is all part of the competitive nature that we need to try to ensure is supported. We need to provide local solutions to local problems. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you are aware that Hampshire County Council has been working to go beyond 96% connectivity—[Interruption.] If you were not aware before, you are now. That could be met if we allowed local firms to meet that 4% shortfall. If we allowed local firms to bid for further funding from the state, unhindered by EU state aid rules—indeed, instead, further supported by these business rates initiatives—we would close that 4% gap without a shadow of a doubt.

Let me turn from BT, which has had a great benefit from the current business rate arrangements, to Virgin Media, which should benefit from this. I outlined that earlier, but it is important to talk a little more about it to outline the importance of the issue to a British company based in my constituency; it has its corporate headquarters in Hook. It has run a competition, through its own commercial judgment, to supercharge local communities. Although the company has not yet supercharged Hook, which is where it is based—I hope it is listening and will do so shortly—it has agreed to supercharge Hartley Wintney and Phoenix Green, just down the road. That means that those places will have ultrafast fibre to the premises very shortly, which is good news because residents there will get a head start on what the Government aspire for the whole of the country to receive. Those residents will receive fibre to the premises, which means they will be eligible to get the 1 gigabit per second telecommunications connectivity that is critical for the future.

Businesses will benefit as well—this is not confined to households. In Yateley in my constituency, Samsung has its European quality control centre. If we want those technical businesses to be based in constituencies such as mine, we need to ensure they have the connectivity to match. Samsung being the technical giant that it is, it needs that more than perhaps anyone else. It is therefore brilliant news to hear that these business rates initiatives will be introduced.

This is not just about the giants; it is also about the smaller businesses. Fleet, the biggest town in my constituency, has a business called CV-Library. It was set up in 2000, in the dotcom boom era. Although that was a very different internet era, that remains an internet business and it is very successful. It was set up by a young carpet fitter who was looking for work and it is now the UK’s third biggest jobs board. Of course it has thrived on the great number of new jobs created under the economic management of this Government, and it is one of the top 500 most visited websites in the UK. So we are talking about a well reputed website.

That small business has come a long way, with Resume-Library allowing it to operate in the United States, and it is now thriving as an international business. Again, as with Samsung, if we want such businesses to be based outside the main towns and cities—outside London and across the country, ensuring that we create an economy of the nations and regions, not just of London —we need connectivity that serves businesses such as CV-Library and allows them to thrive and to connect with the world, as CV-Library has done with Resume-Library and will, I am sure, do in future. Incidentally, it was the first jobs website to allow people to apply for jobs on a mobile phone. I shall come back to that important point in a moment.

One resident in Bramley told me that he found it

“incredible that we are surrounded by much better services and yet it appears that we are unable to access these.”

People such as that resident from Bramley are used to going on their mobile phone and connecting to 4G, yet in their house they cannot connect to a decent fixed-broadband service. He also said:

“I have been told by BT that it is not possible to switch exchanges” from one to another

“as this is ‘too difficult’”.

In the mobile age, when people can go about their daily business while they walk to work, it is not acceptable for something to be simply too difficult for a monopoly provider. We must do better, and the Government are.

It is important that the 100% business rates relief is focused on encouraging the full-fibre initiative and getting that to the premises. Indeed, the digital infrastructure investment fund has also been designed as an incentive. Traditionally, it has been difficult to finance digital infrastructure investment in Britain because the industry has been relatively young. The lack of certainty about future demand has made investment difficult to secure. I hope that the digital infrastructure investment fund, along with business rates initiatives such as the one in the Bill, will ignite interest, so that private finance will invest in this important sector. Digital infrastructure is a critical part of our infrastructure, like roads and rail, so I hope that the private interest we really need will be drawn in. As my hon. Friend Robert Courts mentioned, the drawing in of private finance will make the market more competitive and allow local solutions to rise up and meet local people’s needs.

Full-fibre networks are so much more resilient than the traditional copper-wire networks. I referred to my constituent in Hazeley Lea who told me that the copper cabling was failing. That is a problem not only for Hazeley Lea and North East Hampshire, but for the whole country, because the internet is delivered to most homes in Britain by underground copper cables. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to the green cabinets that people see springing up, and from which bushes are cut away so that they can be enabled for fibre, but the final part of the service is still delivered by copper. The wires can be degraded by distance, as has been the case for my constituents in Stratfield Saye and Hazeley Lea; indeed, the constituents in Bramley who live near Chineham have the problem of the long distance from the exchange in Bramley.

Full-fibre networks seek to run the fibre connections straight to the doors of homes or businesses. I make one plea to the Government, because there is still no capability in planning legislation and the national planning policy framework for local councils to mandate fibre to the premises, which would solve the problem referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. They can request it, but the only requirement they can make is that there be a telephone connection to a home. I have been told that, if it is done at scale, particularly on larger developments, the cost difference is marginal, if existent at all. The Government could easily remove that difficulty for councils to mandate fibre, and it would be transformational in the new homes that the Government aspire to build throughout the whole United Kingdom.