Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:35 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport 5:35 pm, 10th July 2017

I can tell my right hon. Friend two things. The first is that we are committed to a business rates review to look at these sorts of things for fibre currently in the ground; I am sure the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones, who are here on the Bench, will have heard what he has said.

The second thing is that at the heart of this Bill is making sure that new fibre that goes into the ground will have no such rates at all for the next five years, which is why we are here legislating today; we are making sure that companies such as the one he mentioned can get on and deliver this fibre, digging it in the ground as efficiently and cheaply as is reasonably possible, and we reduce the tax on that.

The fourth reason why fibre is important is for implementing our 5G strategy, including exploring commercial options to improve mobile coverage on our roads and rail networks, because we want mobile phone coverage where people live, work and travel. We are working with Ofcom to make sure that UK regulations on spectrum and infrastructure are 5G ready. We are working across Government with the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to make sure that we get right the rules on putting the infrastructure in place. We are also supporting 5G pilots, the first of which we will roll out next year, making Britain a global leader in 5G. All 5G roll-out is supported by fibre—there cannot be a 5G mast without the fibre that connects it to the network.

Fifthly, our £200 million local full-fibre networks programme is about supporting local bodies to stimulate the market for fibre connectivity in their areas. Fibre cannot be delivered by some sort of entirely nationalised, top-down, taxpayer-funded system; it has to be done in collaboration with the private sector. The local full-fibre networks programme is being delivered in support of local bodies to encourage the market to provide more fibre connectivity. For example, public sector anchor tenancies will bring together public sector broadband demand in an area to create an anchor customer, thereby making sure that investors know there is enough revenue to reduce the risk of building a new network. Such networks will connect directly into public sector buildings such as schools and hospitals. At the same time, they will improve connectivity for those who work in our vital public services and bring fibre closer to more homes and businesses, allowing them to be connected, too. The first wave of projects will begin later in the year. This is a great example of the public and private sectors working together to improve connectivity for all.

Sixthly, our business broadband fibre connection vouchers are incredibly exciting for people like me who are frustrated at the poor quality of broadband being delivered to businesses. In the previous Parliament, we had a really effective voucher scheme for superfast broadband for businesses. The new vouchers will be trialled by the end of the year and will be for full-fibre connections for businesses. The scheme will be rolled out more widely in 2018 to help businesses to get the best fibre broadband, because we know that so many jobs and so much business growth depends on it.

The Bill takes a further step. Business rates are an important source of revenue for local services, but have long been cited as a barrier to investment by the telecoms sector. There has been consternation—as articulated by my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon—at how the rates have been calculated. There was a perception of a disparity or lack of fairness between the rates paid by some operators, such as BT and Virgin Media, and smaller alternative networks such as CityFibre and Gigaclear. The rating methodology is of course a matter for the independent VOA, which has been working on this issue with the sector, but it is complex work and we do not have a moment to waste.

We recognise the urgent need to go the extra mile, so in last year’s autumn statement my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a 100% rate relief for all new fibre networks for five years from April 2017, with any relief backdated to that date. We will fund and fuel a full-fibre future, and we have introduced this Bill early in the Parliament to bring forward the legislative changes required to make that happen. The Bill will introduce new rules into each provision for business rates to allow us to vary the rates bill for telecommunication infrastructure, which will be set so that no rates are paid on new fibre for five years from the April just gone.