Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 10th July 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Conservative, Cannock Chase 7:39 pm, 10th July 2017

My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to some specific issues later in my speech.

My office is on Market Street in the heart of Hednesford, yet when I am there, more often than not I cannot make telephone calls because I do not have any mobile phone reception. When I am travelling between my office and my home as well, invariably the mobile phone reception falls.

Why is broadband and mobile access so important? As Members have said, it is key to family and our daily lives. We can keep in contact with our friends across the world through Facebook and social media. We have talked about the closure of high street bank branches across the country because people are increasingly doing their banking online, but they need excellent online access to be able to do that. I am not sure that any Members have mentioned being able to switch energy suppliers. We talk about people trying to get better rates for their gas and electricity, and that is often best done by looking at online portals. If people do not have good internet access, the range of deals they can get is restricted.

We have talked about watching television, too. Personally, I just switch the TV on; that goes back to my being a bit of a dinosaur. Many people, however, use iPlayer and on-demand services. My mother, for instance, has never used a computer, but a few years ago we got her iPlayer and she is absolutely reliant on it for communicating with people and watching television, but she has to have excellent broadband access to do that.

I want to raise some specific issues in terms of broadband access and the roll-out of full fibre connectivity. A number of my constituents live on a new housing development called Chasewater Grange, and they complain of painfully slow broadband speeds. It is a new Taylor Wimpey development on the edge of Norton Canes. There are about 130 houses. Despite being billed as a superb collection of high-quality homes, with a mix of house types to suite a range of tastes, including three and four-bedroom homes, all with easy access to local amenities—which I fully support; they are fantastic, and it is a fantastic development—the one thing the local residents do not enjoy is fast and reliable broadband access.

On building a new housing scheme, developers install gas, electricity and water as a matter of course, but we are now in a time when broadband is the fourth utility. The provision of superfast broadband should be treated in the same way as the other utilities. The problem is not unique to Chasewater Grange. I have done quite a lot of research on this issue over previous days, and I have been reading endless reports of residents of new developments up and down the country facing similar issues.

My hon. Friend Kit Malthouse is not in his place at present, but he made the point that this problem has been recognised, and last year an agreement was reached between the Government, Openreach and the House Builders Federation to ensure that superfast and ultrafast broadband connectivity would be either provided free or co-funded by Openreach to new developments. This has been extended to all developments with more than 30 homes, and connection will be free. We rightly place emphasis on building new homes; we often talk about the issue in the Chamber. So I am pleased that there is recognition that broadband connectivity is as important as the other utilities. Homebuyers expect this.

The issue is particularly important in my constituency, because thousands of new homes are being built all the time. When I drive around the constituency, I never cease to be amazed by the number of new developments. In the Pye Green valley and in Brereton, where I live, homes are being built all the time, and we must make sure they have access to both the main utilities and also broadband.

The moves made by Openreach and the House Builders Federation are good news, but they are not going to resolve the issues faced by the residents of Chasewater Grange. I was very pleased to learn last week that that community has made some progress in securing funding from both Openreach and Taylor Wimpey to complete the work to install the fibre-based broadband. However, the residents of Chasewater Grange still face a funding shortfall, and they are communicating at present with Superfast Staffordshire. I hope they succeed in securing some assistance to be able to bridge the gap and ensure that this fibre broadband is connected.

I hope that as a result the residents of Chasewater Grange will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of fast and reliable broadband, and be able to do their banking online, and that the teenagers will be able to do their homework online—I am sure that we would all agree that it is important that they can complete their assignments. I also hope that those residents who want to work from home will be able to do so. The issues relating to broadband speeds are not confined to Chasewater Grange. I know of homes on Sweetbriar Way, for example, that have been waiting years for this connectivity. I also have a small number of rural properties in my constituency, and they are still waiting, too.

I want to turn to a more positive aspect of fast broadband access. The redevelopment of the Rugeley B power station site will present opportunities to tap into existing superfast broadband infrastructure. The power station sits right alongside the west coast main line, which has the superfast broadband network running up the line. Similarly, the canal network in the area has that infrastructure. The power station site benefits from the railway line and the canals; it also has national grid infrastructure. I have described it before in the House as a connectivity crossover, and we need to make the most of it. It presents an ideal opportunity to attract high-tech businesses and advanced manufacturing that can make the most of the infrastructure.

The power station site is huge, and there will also be some homes on it. I have talked about the need to bring broadband infrastructure to the door in new housing developments. The superfast broadband line is very close to this development, and we need to make the most of it—not only for today but for future generations. There is a real opportunity to ensure that the regeneration of this power station site attracts the businesses that will create highly skilled, highly paid jobs for those future generations. As I have said before—and will probably say again to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones—we need to have ambitious, bold and visionary plans for Rugeley.

There is another site in my constituency that has excellent digital infrastructure, and again, we need to make the most of it. It is the Cannock campus of the South Staffordshire College. It was very disappointing to hear recently that it is to shut owing to falling numbers, because it had received a multi-million pound investment a few years ago, part of which provided it with excellent digital infrastructure. We need to make the most of this site as we look at plans for its future. We need to tap into that digital infrastructure.

I am sure that many other Members want to speak in this important debate, but I want to come back to the Bill that we are discussing tonight. It is part of a wide range of reforms that the Government are undertaking to ensure that we have excellent digital infrastructure across our country. I welcome the Bill. I welcome the fact that it will enable my constituency and others to have faster, more reliable broadband and to enjoy all the benefits that the internet and emails offer us.