Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage 6:21 pm, 10th July 2017

I am grateful for the chance to speak under your chairmanship for the second time, Madam Deputy Speaker. I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I thought it might be narrowly-focused, but I have judged, from the interventions on the Minister, that this is clearly going to be yet another talk-fest about the quality of broadband in individual Members’ constituencies. That means I will have to stay for the whole debate to ensure that hon. Members are not too rude about me. I know that they are unswerving in their support of the Minister, but they always liked to have a go at me when I did his job.

It was quite good to hear the Opposition spokesman, Andrew Gwynne, as he spent very little time actually talking about broadband, which shows how well the job has been done. He finessed his speech to talk widely about the important issue of business rates, but only mentioned broadband briefly. I understand why and respect his reasons because, under the stewardship of the Minister, we have of course seen the most successful rural broadband programme ever devised anywhere in the world. There was meant to be a cheer there. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I will give hon. Members their cue points as I go through my speech.

This incredibly successful programme has delivered superfast broadband to 4.5 million premises for a few hundred million pounds. Most of that money, if not all of it, will come back to the Government because the way in which the contracts were constructed means that the money starts to be paid back once take-up passes a certain threshold. I echo the words of my hon. Friend Helen Whately. She talked about the 20% of premises in her constituency that have superfast broadband. It is very important that we see our cup as half full. The Opposition Chief Whip spends his time thinking his cup is half full at the moment—[Interruption.] Oh, he is the Deputy Chief Whip; well, for me, he is really the Chief Whip. I digress. We hear from people who do not have broadband and are waiting for superfast broadband, and it is absolutely understandable that they are irritated. Those voices obviously grow louder as superfast broadband spreads, and as more people have access to this fantastic technology.

I got involved in the debate about business rates for broadband many years ago. In fact, when I was in opposition, I used to tease the then telecoms Minister, Stephen Timms. I came up with an Opposition policy to reduce or eliminate business rates on telecoms infrastructure because every provider I went to told me that business rates were a big impediment to investment. I challenged the then Minister, asking him what on earth he was going to do about that, because the Valuation Office Agency was in charge of the business rates and it was the Minister’s job to take the agency by the scruff of the neck and sort the situation out. Of course, when I got into office, I realised that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The Valuation Office Agency is independent. It decides the level of business rates and it certainly sees off any Minister who tries to alter its independence or affect its judgment—quite right too.

The other row we had was about the fact that BT apparently gets a better deal on its business rates compared with some of the smaller providers. My understanding is that that is because of a long-standing court case brought by BT. BT also has much more infrastructure in the ground, so it is able to cut a wholesale deal with the Valuation Office Agency, but it is much more difficult for small providers that are getting under way. It is one of those unfortunate things. The point that I am trying to make, in my own rambling fashion, is that the impact of business rates on investment in broadband infrastructure is real. It is one of the factors that people take into account when they are trying to build infrastructure. The Bill is a very welcome measure to address that problem.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not know if you have actually read the Bill, but it is the most boring and technical Bill that I have ever read. There are only six clauses. I saw six officials sitting in the Box and wondered whether each had been given a clause, because the chance of making it to the end of drafting even one clause is almost impossible. I do not know whether any of my hon. Friends suffer from insomnia under the stress of doing this job. If so, I strongly recommend that they take the Bill home; they will be sound asleep by halfway through clause 1. However, I understand the thrust of the Bill, which aims to encourage new investment in broadband infrastructure by suspending the levying of business rates. That is the best way to do it, and the Government have calculated that something like £60 million of savings could be made.

I echo what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box. I hope that all new infrastructure providers—people have mentioned companies such as Gigaclear and CityFibre—will take advantage of this. The Bill is aimed squarely at them to remove a financial barrier to further investment. The Government are trying to move to the next phase of broadband roll-out. The key task of the previous Parliament was to get workable broadband with speeds of about 24 megabits to as many people as possible. That has pretty much been completed. I understand that, under the universal service obligation, people in the last 5% of premises might get lower, but still workable, speeds. We are starting to build the future-proofed infrastructure to deliver fast and reliable broadband at speeds of above 30 megabits. Those are the kinds of broadband speeds that we will be able to dial up as more people make use of the technology. We all know—this does not need to be rehearsed—how much technology and data are now used, and the kind of bandwidth needed for the average home with two teenagers and parents watching 4K content, let alone for somewhere with business needs.

Planning is a much bigger impediment than business rates. A lot of people forget that. They think it is easy to build this infrastructure, but it is not at all. One comes across far too many cases of councils not being co-ordinated. There are cases of broadband providers having to go to five different council departments to get permission for way leaves, to dig up the highway and all the other permissions they need to build this infrastructure. We really need to get to grips with this in some shape or fashion.

In the spirit of co-operation that the Prime Minister announced this morning, let me suggest that the Labour Front Benchers talk to the Mayor of London. There must be an opportunity for him to set up a broadband taskforce to get all the London boroughs to co-ordinate their planning. I have heard of councils—it does not really matter what political colour they are—not granting way leaves to providers who wanted to provide broadband for social housing in London. I have heard of councils that did not want the green boxes on their pavements because they did not like the design. I have come across councils that refused to let broadband providers go ahead with future work, because they did not clear up after their previous work. Now, I understand councils’ irritation, but they are still holding things back. It is an incredibly dull point, but there must be an opportunity to co-ordinate the planning functions of the London boroughs, as well as of councils across the country.