Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 6:40 pm, 10th July 2017

I suppose I should apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones because the last time I was called to speak in a debate with no time limit, the subject was the local government finance settlement in 2016; I think that his scars have only just about healed. I was starting to take it a bit personally: every time I got called to speak, a new time limit was suddenly imposed, usually shorter than that which had gone before. My neighbour, my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson, has suggested that one is imposed pre-emptively on my getting up to speak, but I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will resist his cri de coeur.

I am not going to talk with the authority of my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, because he speaks with great experience about these matters, but I want to make some points. First, I very much welcome this Bill, particularly the fact that it appears to be the result of a collaboration between three important Government Departments—the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Treasury. That sort of joined-up working of three Departments coming together to identify a problem and create a solution is to be welcomed, and it signposts a very-likely-successful governmental modus operandi for the five years of a Conservative Government that we have ahead of us.

I find myself almost reaching for the smelling salts and some form of remedial medication in agreeing with the Labour Front Bench spokesman, Andrew Gwynne, although I would probably approach this in a slightly different way. I welcome the proposals in the Bill to help speed up and underscore the importance of the delivery of broadband. In relation to local government, particularly in small shire districts that are always seeking to be more efficient, I hope—indeed, I know—that my hon. Friend the DCLG Minister will be taking the reduction in the funding stream of non-domestic rates to a local authority into consideration as he evolves the new funding settlement for our local councils, which do so much good work to deliver these services. I thought that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish made that point well, and I am sure it will have been heard on both sides of the House. The delivery of broadband and the delivery of those local council services are important, very often, to exactly the same constituents who need both.

I hope that this Bill and the proposed financial incentive, if that is the correct word, will act as a spur to existing providers to deliver on the notspots that are very prevalent, particularly, though not exclusively, in our rural areas, where the economic case for delivery is either non-existent or marginal, or where, as a result of further economic investigation, it has fallen outwith the confines and constraints of the initial contract usually agreed between a county council—in the case of Dorset, as with so many—and British Telecom.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage spoke with huge authority and experience, and I do not demur from anything that he said. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital talked about the evolving technologies that mean that this will not just be about wire, copper, fibre and so on, as fixed wireless and satellite are playing a part. This has been a long-running debate. I look to my hon. Friend Matt Warman—he does not look to me, but I look to him—who has done so much to promote the delivery of rural broadband: so much, in fact, that he has been rewarded by being made a PPS in the Department, which means that he can no longer speak on the subject. This is clearly the route to promotion: talk with authority and knowledge on a subject and then get zipped up and silenced for many years to come. Perhaps that is why I got moved from DEFRA to the Home Office—I do not know.

This subject has knocked around in public and political debate and in the media for a long time, so it is worth while, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, pausing for a few moments to remind ourselves of the most enormous strides made in broadband provision for all our constituents and constituencies, urban and rural. Yesterday afternoon, I ordered something online—I am going to tease the House by not saying what the object was—to be delivered to my house tomorrow morning. The sketch writers, and indeed anybody else, may wish to run some sort of book on what it was. All I will say is that it is not something I would have guessed one could have ordered online even three or four years ago. My hon. Friend Robert Courts is looking even more perplexed than usual. I was struck by the huge change that this technology has made, and this Bill helps to underpin its delivery.

From a rural point of view—and what could be more rural than North Dorset?—it is worth re-amplifying the benefits that are derived from fast and superfast broadband and that will be further helped by the contents of this Bill. It was a pleasure to follow Jonathan Edwards, who was right to point out, as I do, the huge unlocking of tourism potential in the promotion of hotel rooms, rooms in pubs, visitor attractions and the like, and in interactive tourist information centres in areas where local authorities may have withdrawn from face-to-face, over-the-counter visitor services. It will be absolutely crucial for the farmer in my constituency who is trying to buy or sell stock or make their submission to the Rural Payments Agency to have fast, reliable broadband of a speed and a regularity of service that no longer drops off just as they reach that crucial moment of hitting “send” or loading up that large map.

The issue is also crucial for small and medium-sized businesses. I am thinking of two in my constituency, both of which happen to be based in a small market town called Sturminster Newton: one is Crowdcomms and the other is Harts. Crowdcomms provides online and interactive platforms for large international conferences. It has offices based in Seattle, Sydney, and Sturminster Newton—it is there because the town has 4G.

Harts of Sturminster is one of those wonderful shops, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I know you will cherish and love as I do. It is the sort of shop that you walk into and do not say, “Do you sell?”, but merely ask, “Where can I find?”, because it sells absolutely everything, from powdered egg, to blackout curtains, to knicker elastic and sock gaiters—it is all there. You require none of those things, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage says that he now knows what I was ordering, but he would be wrong on all counts.

The shop makes its largest sales from its cookware department online. This is in a small market town that, until a few years ago, had as its main centre of industry the largest calf and livestock—particularly cattle—market in the whole of the south-west. Broadband is transforming local rural economies, creating good-quality, high-tech jobs. It also helps—we forget this at our peril—with the delivery of a whole raft of other things in rural social life, including for small villages that are geographically disconnected and not particularly well served by rural public transport.

We now have faster broadband service provision than has hitherto been the case, which helps with promoting charitable and fundraising events. I remember the frustration on my wife’s face as she tried to download posters for events she was organising for the St Gregory’s parents, teachers and friends association, but that has been transformed by the faster speed. Everybody in North Dorset now knows—as does everybody who reads the Official Report—that St Gregory’s summer sizzler event will take place in Marnhull this Friday. Everybody is invited. It is a huge fundraising event for our local school, the promotion of which is better enabled by broadband.