Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 10th July 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness 7:32 pm, 10th July 2017

Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, although he is no longer in the Chamber—and, indeed, my hon. Friend Helen Whately—for being so kind about the work that I have done on broadband. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said that I would not speak in the debate, I was going to leap to my feet like some sort of digital gazelle, but I thought I would keep the House waiting. We have heard several extensive speeches about the many benefits of Government investment in digital infrastructure, but my speech will be somewhat briefer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said that some of her constituents were not able to do something as old-fashioned as making a mobile telephone call. Mobile telephone calls are, in our modern world, pretty old-fashioned, but we should not forget that not many years ago they were simply impossible in this place. Since then, we have not only been through the period of the invention of mobile phones; we have been through a period during which all our constituents railed against the installation of mobile phone masts. Now we have come full circle, and they rail against the absence of mobile phone masts. The digital revolution has thoroughly revolved.

I want to make some brief points about the Bill. It seems obvious to me that, although adopting this approach to encouraging digital infrastructure investment means that the Government are forgoing a certain amount of revenue from business rates, their fostering of digital innovation and infrastructure investment will ensure that the amount they get back through the broader benefits of economic growth is many times greater than the amount that the business rates themselves cost the state and the taxpayer. That strikes me as a definition of the way in which the Government should be using public money, pump-priming economic growth to allow the development of an economy that works in the digital way that, as we have heard, our children will expect, and that all modern businesses already expect.

I commend the Government for taking that approach. It is also commendable that, by giving the relief a five-year term—which my right hon. Friend the Minister hinted could even be extended—they are giving firms an incentive to invest in installing fibre now, even if they do not turn it on, so to speak, for a number of years. I hope that we will secure the economies of scale of broader investment while continuing to benefit from business rate relief on that investment. That can only be a good thing, and it also addresses some of the concerns raised by the industry before the introduction of the Bill.

We should bear in mind that the growth in demand for fibre will only increase. When I was a journalist writing about the launch of the iPlayer—the BBC cunningly launched it in Christmas Day, because it knew that demand would be rather more limited—the BBC did not think for one moment that it would itself be broadcasting in 4K come 2016-17. Still less did it think that we would, as a matter of course, live in households in which half a dozen people wanted to download the 4K streams that broadcasters now routinely provide.

It is no small irony that, by all accounts, when Bazalgette built the London sewers he offered quadruple the capacity that was required in Victorian London. Now we see that that quadruple capacity has been more than exhausted by a growing population, and we should take the same approach when it comes to investing in our digital infrastructure. To point out that a prominent Bazalgette is still involved in the life of our digital nation is not in any way to draw a comparison between sewage and the modern digital output with which he is concerned. The huge benefits provided by the man who brought us “Big Brother” and a host of other programmes are not to be described in that way in the slightest degree. All we can say is that this is clearly a family that has contributed a huge amount to the life of our nation, at every level of our infrastructure.

In this day and age, there is never an excuse for underestimating the amount of digital capacity that we will require. Although 4K may appear to be perfectly adequate for our purposes today, we will look back on it in a number of years and see that it is paltry in comparison with what we will be using on a routine basis, whether that involves virtual reality, driverless cars, or all the technologies that will eradicate the digital scourge of fly-parking mentioned by my hon. Friend Amanda Milling.

We should not only encourage the Government to proceed with the Bill as quickly as possible, but encourage any Government to ensure that this sort of rate relief applies to investment in digital infrastructure, whether mobile or fixed, thus ensuring—following the launch of the iPlayer not so very long ago—that the internet of things that is now coming upon us will be fully served. That will be thanks to the investment of Governments such as this.