Church Land and Buildings: Digital Connectivity

Oral Answers to Questions — Church Commissioners – in the House of Commons on 28th March 2019.

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Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what progress has been made on implementing the joint accord between the Government and the Church of England on the use of Church land and buildings to support digital connectivity.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on using church spires to facilitate the provision of broadband in rural areas.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

It gives me very special pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend Mrs Murray because it allows me to extend to her my very best wishes for her wedding on Saturday. I am sure the House joins me in that.

The Church of England is working with stakeholders to produce guidance for churches to be published in May. The guidance should assist churches in making the best use of the joint accord between the Government and the Church to support digital connectivity. Two hundred churches have taken up the opportunity of the new technology, adding to the existing 300 that had already done so.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

I thank my right hon. Friend for her good wishes. Is she aware of any specific problems that discourage parishes from taking up the opportunity to improve connectivity in rural areas such as South East Cornwall, and at the same time increasing parish income? If so, can the Government do anything to help?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

It is largely about awareness or perceived barriers—some people think it is impossible to be a candidate, but I reassure my hon. Friend that it is perfectly possible to install digital technology infrastructure even in listed buildings. I encourage her to raise awareness locally. Two churches in the Truro diocese were granted facility in 2017, but two is not many in the whole diocese. Anything that can be done to encourage other churches to look at the opportunity to improve broadband coverage in their area would be gratefully received.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

It is a pleasure to be coupled with my hon. Friend Mrs Murray. I wish her the very best in her coupling this weekend—a proper Cornish wedding in Westminster.

After discussions with the Church Commissioners officer, I am aware that there are no reasons why church spires cannot be used for boosting broadband signals in rural areas. I recently had a good meeting with Cornwall Broadband, a local provider, which would like to open a dialogue with the churches in Cornwall to utilise their spires. Would the Church Commissioners be interested in that dialogue, and what advice can the right hon. Lady offer to facilitate those discussions?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

The Church Commissioners would be interested, but the initiative comes very much from the diocese; I encourage them to make contact through the diocesan office. Some diocese have progressed faster with this opportunity, particularly in East Anglia—almost 300 churches in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex alone have installed this digital technology, for example. One of the key barriers is not knowing where the notspots for mobile and broadband signals are. All colleagues can get involved: if there is a tall church building in the vicinity of a notspot, perhaps this technology is for them.