Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Co-National Campaign Coordinator 5:56 pm, 10th July 2017

May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is a pleasure to see you in your rightful place. I wish to take this opportunity to welcome my shadow Communities and Local Government team: my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan, who has today agreed to act as my PPS.

The Opposition cautiously welcome the Government’s apparent commitment to provide financial relief for all new investment in full-fibre internet for five years. In the course of my speech, I shall set out why I say “cautiously”. Until the intervention from Wendy Morton, the Minister had waxed lyrical for twenty minutes before coming to business rate relief, which is the subject of this very short Bill.

The Opposition welcome the opportunity finally to discuss a crucial piece of infrastructure policy—a policy that will have a huge impact on the potential investment opportunities for all our communities over the coming decades. It is rather ironic that we are talking about IT connections on a day when pretty much all the parliamentary internet connection is down. I have it on good assurance that the parliamentary information and communications technology officers are busily trying to reconnect MPs to the internet and their email accounts.

All Members will know that the policy in the Bill will affect every part of the country—north or south; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; urban or rural—so we have to get this right. I am sure Members will feel that acutely today as we and our staff struggle with the collapse of internet connection across the Westminster estate which I just mentioned.

We were expecting a larger, more substantial Bill, not least considering the scope of investment and certainty needed not only for full-fibre infrastructure but on business rates more widely. However, it appears that the Government have been in permanent listening mode for quite some time now, which would explain their decision to acquiesce in the concerns of independent and large internet providers who at the end of last year faced an excessive fourfold increase their rateable values.

The UK’s main providers and the Broadband Commission have estimated that UK 5G infrastructure will outstrip the economic benefits of fibre broadband, which most of the country currently uses, by 2026, when it will be outdated. By 2026, therefore, the UK will reach a tipping point where the direct economic benefits of new 5G optical fibre internet will beat the conventional fibre broadband. Various estimates point to a boost to the UK economy of between £5 billion to £7 billion just six years from roll-out, with 5G broadband delivering economic growth almost twice as quickly as conventional fibre broadband used today. Much as with our railways and road links, the quicker the connection, the faster businesses will grow, particularly in an age when online sales, social media and direct online contact with buyers and sellers are becoming the norm.

A study by O2 has revealed that national 5G infrastructure will also add an extra £3 billion a year through secondary supply chain impacts, boosting overall UK productivity by a total of £10 billion, which, as I have already said, makes good, sound economic sense. With improved connectivity comes greater economic growth, more jobs and improved links between business hubs and individuals alike. Although today’s Bill will be welcomed by larger providers in the sector as it will relieve some of the burden that they face from increased business rates—£60 million is on offer, which is a big giveaway to them—I worry that it will do not as much as it should for the independent providers, and it will not come close to mitigating the fourfold increase that all providers have faced. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances when he winds up the debate. Providers are not the only ones who need assurances; consumers do, too, and they need to know that those costs will not be passed on to them.

Additionally, I am slightly disappointed that this Bill contains only partial measures, instead of the more detailed and wide-ranging set of proposals that were outlined in the Local Government Finance Bill, of which these measures were originally a part. I mention that Bill, which had successfully passed through Committee, as it included proposals on local business rate retention for local authorities as well as the legislation for business rate relief for new full-fibre broadband, which we are now discussing today. However, those fuller measures seem to have disappeared since the general election.

Since that election, I have asked the Secretary of State on three separate occasions about the progress that has been made on delivering business rate retention for local authorities. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr Jones, has something to say on that. He can intervene on me now or respond in his closing remarks. I ask him again: what is happening to retention and why has business rate relief for new 5G connectivity now been separated into this smaller, separate Bill?

As I have said, I have written to the Secretary of State about this matter and I await his response, although I hope that, by this stage, the Department will do less listening and more acting on this issue of business rate retention. In the spirit of the cross-party co-operation that the Prime Minister is now asking for, and in respect of the exchange of ideas and genuine dialogue between the Opposition and the Government, I suggest that perhaps we can work together on a shared future for local government finance. The local government sector deserves more than a policy and a financial black hole with which it is currently faced with the exclusion of the Local Government Finance Bill from the Queen’s Speech. At the same time, the Government are still announcing their intention to remove the revenue support grant. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that when he closes the debate.

The Secretary of State and I visited the LGA conference last week—admittedly we received slightly different receptions. I am sure that he was reminded again and again by representatives from councils of all political colours of the financial certainty that local authorities desperately need—specifically at a time when they have already absorbed budgets cuts of 40%. However, like me, they have received no updates and no certainty. While we are talking about an element of the business rate in this Bill, perhaps we can remind the Secretary of State that local authorities need to have that clarity and certainty for future financial planning. They need some idea from this Government of where the wider business rate policy is going.

I will repeat what I said during my speech to the Local Government Association: “The Secretary of State told local government that they faced a looming crisis in confidence. He’s wrong. It is this Government who are facing a looming crisis in confidence.” The lack of clarity on business rates and the botched business rates revaluations have left thousands of businesses facing cliff-edge increases in their rates. In addition, the Government’s support package and promises to review the revaluation process go nowhere near far enough.

It is clear that business rates are this Department’s ticking time bomb, which threatens to destroy high streets and town centres across the country. Labour advocates introducing statutory annual revaluations to stop businesses facing periodic and unmanageable hikes, and guarantees a fair and transparent appeals process. We will reform business rates, scrap quarterly reporting and end the scourge of late payments, because it is Labour which is the party of business. [Interruption.] Members can heckle, but the facts speak clearly: this Government have let down business and they have let down local government.