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Clause 7 - Electronic communications code: the need to promote growth

Growth and Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 29th November 2012.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

It is hardly surprising that the Campaign for National Parks wishes to delete all of the clause. In its evidence to the Committee, it pointed out, quite rightly, that its

“Mission is to inspire everyone to enjoy and look after National Parks”— which it describes as—

“The nation’s green treasures.”

I think that is how we all experience them, at the moment in any case.

Of course we all wish to see those green treasures left in a fit state to pass on intact to future generations. Surely, that is what is at risk from the measures in the clause. All of us accept that the countryside cannot be preserved in aspic, and that rural areas need growth too. I would have thought that there is universal agreement across the Committee that people in rural areas want and need broadband too.

As the Campaign for National Parks pointed out, the Committee has received no evidence whatever that the additional protection afforded to designated landscapes has acted as a barrier to rural growth or delayed the roll- out of broadband. Indeed, it suggested that the opposite has taken place. National park authorities are taking a proactive approach to facilitating broadband and mobile delivery, but in a way that minimises the visual impact. It gave a number of examples. In Northumberland—a county close to my heart because it borders my constituency in County Durham—the national park authority has worked with the local enterprise partnership to gain £1 million for a rural growth hub right in the centre of the national park. That included delivering high-speed broadband. Further, it has worked with Northumberland county council to deliver improvements to 3,000 adjacent premises.

In the Peak District national park, mobile phone operators have discussed their roll-out plans with the national parks authority prior to submitting an application. That has made it possible to avoid siting masts in the most damaging locations in wild corridors or to design them in such a way that minimises their visual impact. Furthermore, the South Downs and New Forest national park authorities are members of the rural economy  action group. They have supported bids by Hampshire county council and West Sussex county council to Broadband Delivery UK. There are many more such examples. I will not extend our deliberations unduly by going through them one by one.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

As always, my hon. Friend makes a convincing case. Has she come across any evidence of cases where broadband has been stopped because of the concerns raised by national park authorities?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I shall come on to the lack of evidence in a moment. I did not come across an example of a national park authority stopping broadband roll-out. No doubt the fact that we have raised the point in Committee may elicit some information from out there, if indeed there is any.

National park authorities, rather than being a barrier to broadband delivery, in many parts of the country are actively facilitating its roll-out. There is, however, a second and serious point to note from those examples, which is that the clause risks setting a dangerous precedent by introducing an exemption for the Secretary of State to have regard to the purposes for which national parks, including the Broads Authority, are designated. The Campaign for National Parks claims that significant degradation could result from the measures in the clause with no guarantee of economic growth as a result. It could significantly undermine the ability of national parks to drive a hard bargain with mobile phone companies or broadband deliverers and could mean that many of the achievements set out in my earlier examples would no longer be possible.

The clause would also ignore the fact that national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and so on rely heavily on tourism. Obviously, many visitors are specifically attracted to such areas by the beauty of the landscape, which includes uninterrupted views. Tourists are likely to be put off entirely if they are tripping over a broadband cabinet every five minutes, banging their heads on overhead cables or bumping into mobile phone masts or if they are unable to see a view of a valley or a hillside because overhead cables, cabinets, masts and other electronic bits and pieces are getting in the way. We also know that many national park authorities have been successful in getting energy companies and others to put cables underground, so that the beauty of the landscape is not threatened. It is unclear whether their bargaining hand to do so will be undermined by the clause.

It is shocking that so much of our precious countryside is being put at risk without the Government presenting a shred of evidence in support of their case. The impact assessment cites evidence from BT that broadband roll-out delays range from 12 to 27 months. We are not given an idea of how many cases that relates to, so it could be just two, and such cases could be totally unrepresentative. We also do not have an indication of whether the situation is improving as national park authorities adapt and adopt best practice for their areas and therefore speed up decision making. I am particularly suspicious that the impact assessment states that

“the proposed interventions…will reduce the burden of the planning system on business by removing uncertainty and delay”— and—

“will help reduce the costs”.

How? That is the question that the Minister must answer. How will burdens be reduced unless businesses no longer have to consider the special environment of such areas? How will costs be reduced unless overhead cables and unsightly boxes are allowed where currently they are not because the location is inappropriate? A sensible Government would be facilitating the adoption of good practice everywhere. That would improve certainty. Mobile phone companies would know that they had to plan to bury cables, and broadband providers would know that cabinets must be disguised. The clause runs the risks of cheap, unsightly electronic communications equipment ruining some of our most beautiful countryside. If ever there was a short-term, misguided policy, this must be it.

Given that the impact assessment contains next to no evidence as to why such an extraordinary measure is needed, I turned to the oral evidence given to the Committee, particularly that of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, which seems to be almost a lone voice in being broadly in support of the clause—although it, too, had some concerns. The group said that 2,500 cabinets had been delayed. It then said that such evidence was anecdotal, so I am not clear whether the number of cabinets is 2,500, whether the group thought that the figure might be about 2,500 or whether it did not know the number and that it was just a figure that had been bandied about because we have no further information.

The group seemed most worried about the inconsistency in the policy. It was not the delay, but just that it wanted more certainty. It is not clear how the clause will deal with the issues of certainty and inconsistency, unless the Government intend local authorities, national parks and so on just to agree to everything they are asked to agree to, regardless of the consequences for their local communities. As the Minister confirmed, consultation with local authorities will be taking place, so a better approach would be to have clarity about the code of practice, what needs to be delivered and in what way, within a given time scale.

It is worth noting that those who gave evidence to the Committee were coy about whether the clause would facilitate the installation of more overhead lines. There was much talk of a consultation at DCMS and a code of practice emerging at some time. However, they did not need to be so circumspect because the impact assessment makes it clear that more overhead cables are exactly what the Government have in mind. It states:

“There may be some small-scale adverse impact on visual amenity, as well as some increased operating cost to providers should they decide to deploy new overhead lines as a result of this.”

Clearly, there is an expectation that the measures under the clause will lead to more overhead cables.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. How does it chime with the Minister’s answer in Committee that the clause had absolutely nothing to do with masts and that it would not include masts?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am sure that the Minister was paying attention to the point that my hon. Friend has just made. We want clarification of the range of different types of equipment that might be allowed, if not facilitated, under the clause.

The impact assessment includes hardly a word about the impact of overhead cables, never mind giving us a full-scale assessment of the negative consequences on local communities. If the Government consider that the impact of the clause will be small-scale, will they let the rest of us have the evidence on which they based that assumption? It is exasperating, is it not, that such a weak impact assessment relates to some of our most beautiful countryside?

The Campaign for National Parks said that the Government expect that the powers will be used primarily for the installation of overhead broadband lines. Unlike the Government, however, it notes that there is a strong desire for a complete removal of overhead lines in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. In any case, it points out that there is nothing to prevent the same powers from being used by a telecommunications provider to install other infrastructure, such as radio masts.

It is also strange that the impact assessment makes so much of the fact that the clause will reduce costs. The Campaign for National Parks suggests that there is a willingness to pay for the undergrounding of the overhead lines in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It notes that Ofgem has agreed an allowance of £60 million to be spent on undergrounding of electricity lines between 2010 and 2015. That allowance is based on the principle of willingness to pay and is paid for by consumers. In the interests of protecting our countryside and meeting the needs of areas for broadband, surely the Government would have been better exploring an approach such as this one. We know that clause 7 could stall growth, particularly of tourism, and that it plays fast and loose with our environment. The Minister cannot have failed to note the huge barrage of criticism that has been levelled at his Government on this matter.

The Royal Town Planning Institute notes that it is not national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty per se that are the problem, as superfast broadband varies between them. It also notes that the east of England appears to have a particular problem. Surely the Government should concentrate their efforts in supporting areas where there is a problem, rather than risking a planning free-for-all that could severely damage our natural environment.

Like us, the Campaign to Protect Rural England is simply in despair and wants this clause removed from the Bill. I cannot put the damage that could be inflicted by the clause better than the CPRE has put it:

“The proposal that the key purpose of natural parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to conserve beauty could be overridden in order to provide infrastructure is alarming and it would establish a dangerous and wholly inappropriate precedent.”

But the Minister must also state why his Government have gone back on assurances that were given in a November 2011 consultation on overhead telecommunications deployment that they

“would not relax protections for designated landscapes.”

Yet here we are, some months later, with a clause in the Bill that does precisely what the Government said they would not do.

The CPRE makes the point, which is clearly apparent from the examples I gave earlier, that it is possible to roll out superfast broadband and conserve beauty at the  same time. Furthermore, it points out what an enormous waste of money could result from the clause, because the money that Ofgem has already invested in undergrounding cables could now be put at risk by other overhead lines for other telecommunications equipment going into the same areas where money has already been spent on undergrounding cables.

What we see is a damning set of responses to this particular clause, but that is hardly surprising when the beauty of our countryside is being put at risk without a shred of evidence in support of the Government’s position. But it is worse than that. I know that that is difficult to accept, but that is because yet again we are debating a clause that tells us we are waiting for both a consultation document and a code of practice, neither of which we have seen, and yet apparently we need to see both of those things to understand what the clause is seeking to do.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:15 pm, 29th November 2012

My hon. Friend makes the point about the consultation and guidance. Many of our amendments this morning were about getting clarity from the Minister and reassurances that this clause will not have wide-ranging effects on the countryside. The fact that we have tabled those amendments shows that there is confusion, and that perhaps the consultation and guidance should have accompanied the Bill to help us out in our deliberations.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, I wonder whether he agrees that we should perhaps feel a little comforted by the fact that the Minister himself is confused about a number of matters relating to the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

It is me, not the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who is confused.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am sorry. It is the Planning Minister who is apparently confused; we know that from the letter that he has written to all of us. The serious point is that this is not a way to make good policy, particularly a policy that could have such an impact on our beloved countryside. The Government got into a habit of U-turns a few months ago and I urge them to do so again and remove the clause.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. There comes a point in a country’s economic life when the Government have a responsibility to drive forward a particularly important part of our infrastructure to build economic growth. Putting more broadband capacity into Britain is a clear economic imperative. Evidence from around the world is clear that countries that are advanced in the spread of superfast broadband can improve their economic competitiveness, compete in a globalised world and a globalised economy and create jobs. We have reached a time in our economic history where we need to make a concerted effort to improve superfast broadband access across the United Kingdom as quickly and as practically as possible to achieve those economic goals.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the clause introduces a provision to promote economic growth into section 109 of the Communications Act 2003. It does not say that economic growth should be the only consideration that the Secretary of State should take into account when determining where infrastructure should be built. It quite sensibly adds to and updates that section to reflect the importance of economic growth when the Secretary of State is making regulations in relation to this area. It does not supersede other considerations that are laid out in that Act. It merely adds an important economic imperative for Britain as we seek to upgrade our national infrastructure to compete in this globalised economy.

As I pointed out earlier, the impact assessment says that approximately 4.4 million additional homes will receive superfast broadband as a result of this intervention. It states:

“The impact of this is improved access to superfast broadband for up to 4.375m households, most of which will be in more suburban and rural areas where the commercial case for deployment is more challenging under existing rules. Greater access in these communities will help diversify the local economy and enable greater growth than without this improved infrastructure.”

The hon. Lady pointed to the evidence presented to us by the Broadband Stakeholder Group, by Mrs Pamela Learmonth. The hon. Lady was a little selective in what she quoted. Mrs Learmonth said:

BT has said that some 2,500 cabinets have been taken out of their programmes as a result of the current planning regime…we think that the changes can make a real impact on the ground and ensure that the connectivity gets out there as efficiently as possible. At the moment, there can be some inconsistency between planning authorities.”

She then refers to anecdotal evidence. She was not referring to BT’s clear statement of the impact of the current regime on their inability to roll out 2,500 cabinets as quickly as possible. She said:

“We have some anecdotal evidence of people being asked for fees even justto meet local authorities to discuss where cabinets are to be sited. These sorts of things will naturally get in the way of an efficient and quick roll-out.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 109, Q254.]

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My point was that the evidence from BT was not before us and, to my knowledge, has not been presented to the Committee. There was, therefore, a degree of hearsay in the evidence presented to us.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

The statement was clear from the Broadband Stakeholder Group, whose Pamela Learmonth said,

BT has said that some 2,500 cabinets have been taken out of their programmes as a result of the current planning regime.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 109, Q254.]

We have clear evidence from that group of the impact of the current regime on our ability to roll out broadband speedily. It is also true that, with the DCMS coming up, the Broadband Stakeholder Group is calling for a code of practice to be put in place. I do not see why it would be in the interest of a company to want to erect broadband  boxes that were completely unsuited to a particular environment, but I would welcome a code of practice to ensure that there was agreement on a suitable way to erect boxes in these areas.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I have viewed some of the hon. Lady’s comments with a sense of absurdity. I wonder whether rural communities in the 19th century railed against red pillar boxes being installed, when that was the main method of communication. Surely green broadband boxes would be less offensive, although of course we all love the red pillar box now.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

My hon. Friend makes an important and interesting historical point. That supports my argument that at the beginning of the 21st century we are in a time of rapid change and economic development, which means we cannot afford to hold back in ensuring that Britain has the broadband infrastructure necessary to compete in a rapidly changing world.

I also welcome—as it reinforces the point—the imperative, over a five-year period with implicit sunset clauses, that this period of deregulation will last for a fixed time. In that fixed time, the Government should make all efforts to achieve the goal of superfast broadband access across the UK.

In summary, as I do not wish to detain the Committee much longer, the clause is necessary for a vital area of economic growth. It supports the imperative to get more superfast broadband access into our rural and suburban areas as quickly as possible. It will benefit millions of people in Britain.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I, too, will not detain the Committee longer than necessary. I want to correct the record from this morning. I referred to a small cartoon as being from The Spectator when it was in fact in the New Statesman. All those aspersions about what I was reading late last night can now be cast aside. I have it here for anyone who wishes to see it. If anybody wishes to supply me with a copy of The Spectator , I might thumb through it as some point during the Committee and give my views on it some time in future.

We have to be clear from the start. We have been promoting amendments to probe the Government on their intentions in order to support the organisations that are concerned about the clause. However, in Government, we had far more ambitious plans for rural broadband than the current Government, with a back-stop date of 2018. We said that we would provide superfast broadband to every home by 2012. That was a far more ambitious plan than this Government have brought forward. It is important to put that on record.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. Given the interest shown by all parties in the forthcoming statement, the Committee is suspended and I shall resume the Chair at 4 o’clock.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Thank you, Mr Davies, for your forbearance in allowing us not just to vote on the motion about Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom, which I am pleased was passed by a massive majority of 321, but to hear the Leveson statement, which obviously is important.

I think I told the Committee that it was the New Statesman, not The Spectator. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has laid out all the issues that we wish to raise on clause 7 stand part. We may push that to a vote, unless the Minister can give us some assurances on our questions. In the interest of time and moving the Committee on, I shall sit down and allow others to contribute.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I know that it is unusual for the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister to speak, which is why I have swapped duties with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, so that I can talk about the issue. In my time on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, one of the key things we campaigned for was to get broadband rolled out across the entire country for residents, whether in our inner cities, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, in national parks, and everything else in between.

I agree with the clause, and it certainly should not be limited to the Government programme. The market is providing a substantial amount of the broadband that is needed. Examples were raised earlier about where things were being held up. I will point to a town in my own constituency, where BT applied last October for permission to get a cabinet somewhere, with registration starting on 5 January. After quite a lot of disagreements, the application was withdrawn in April. Permission was reapplied for in May, and eventually BT received permission on 18 July, some nine months after first trying to get planning permission. It is not just in AONBs where there are problems with trying to get broadband cabinets fitted. As we know, the evidence from Mrs Learmonth suggested that BT had had similar problems with more than 2,000 cabinets.

I welcome the earlier statements made from the Opposition Front Bench. Just last month, I noticed that on his website, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South welcomed the roll-out of superfast broadband. He said:

“It is great to see Edinburgh at the forefront of the new Digital age as BT roll out the fibre broadband network”.

As I have already indicated, sometimes there are problems with rolling out that network. I am sure that he does not want to stand in the way of his own residents in Edinburgh enjoying superfast broadband as quickly as possible.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady on welcoming the roll-out of superfast broadband. The Opposition emphasise again that we want broadband to be rolled out as quickly as possible, but we want it to be done properly. My constituency, given the kind of constituency it is, will have great superfast broadband because it is in an urban area. There is no direct comparison to be made with the stuff on my website about a constituency in Edinburgh.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Much as I love Felixstowe in my constituency, I cannot pretend that it is a rural town. It is very much an urban town, with the biggest container port in the country; it has certainly developed from its original roots. It was just an example of saying that even in our significant towns, there can be challenges stopping the deployment of fibre optics. It is a concern, and that is why I support the Government on the clause.

I recognise that the Opposition want to see broadband in the countryside. Over half of my constituency is in an AONB. I have sites of special scientific interest, Ramsar sites and special protection areas—frankly, if there is a designation, I have got it, apart from a national park. Meanwhile, we still have to manage deployment of infrastructure, such as nuclear power stations––two are due to be built soon. It is absolutely critical to our economic growth, because without growth, any development that we have is simply unsustainable. That is why I felt that the Opposition’s amendments were unnecessary. Frankly, the two have to go hand in hand.

There has been all sorts of talk about what is appropriate. Normally, broadband cabinets are green. I would love to see the cabinet that the hon. Member for City of Durham referred to. I am not very tall either, but I have not yet seen a cabinet taller than me. Certainly, most are green. We know that a code of practice that will cover the local area will be taken into account. I appreciate that we are not just talking about green woodland or green fields.

BT’s R and D headquarters is in Martlesham, in my constituency. People who work there live in the AONB. I do not foresee the employees of one of the major companies that will be deploying broadband around the country seeking to spoil the landscape where they live. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not aware of any examples suggested of BT—or indeed Virgin Media, or any other cable provider—putting forward something so inappropriate. Without economic growth, areas will effectively die.

The other reason why broadband in rural areas is particularly important is quality of life. It is not solely about improving business. It is also about improving people’s access to television. We do not have proper transmitters in my part of the world. Everybody else, after the digital switchover, managed to get all sorts of channels, but most people in Suffolk Coastal and the neighbouring constituency managed to get only 15 channels, two of which were Gay Rabbit and Rabbit, which were not exactly wanted. However, the additional communications that come through allowed more residents to switch to internet TV and therefore enjoy the same channels that everyone else receives when they pay exactly the same licence fee. I am not going to start a debate on the licence fee, but considering we receive only about a quarter of the channels that other people do, it could be argued that we should only pay a quarter of the licence fee.

The point has already been made—I appreciate that this is a sensitive topic—that the Government are consulting solely on the fixed line broadband roll out. It is right that they are doing so. After the successful clearance of the state aid hurdle that was undertaken in recent weeks by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke  (Maria Miller), who built on the good work of her civil servants and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), a county council such as mine, Suffolk, is ready to sign the contract soon. We hope to have people digging the ground in the next few months. It is right that the Government are focusing on fixed-line broadband.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

As the hon. Lady has returned to the issue of broadband, I have with me a picture that shows the size of a broadband cabinet in relation to a rather tall gentleman. She will see that it is, indeed, taller than he is. Does she accept that the clause allows for overhead cabling as well as for cabinets?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That may well be the case. My understanding is that Virgin Media, for its broadband deployment, wants to use its technology along existing overhead lines, so that it can put fibre into the home, whereas the BT solution is still to rely on fibre to a cabinet, then use either wireless or existing copper lines to ensure that people get broadband. We know that fibre to the house provides the superior experience. I do not see any particular issue there. I am not aware of any plans of the existing operators to erect more overhead lines to deploy fixed broadband. BT has never mentioned that to me in briefings.

On the issue of quality of life, I have been talking about TV, but one of the things that is coming up is the 4G auction. It is right that the Government are not making provision for that at this time in its consultation or its statutory instrument, but I hope that they will think ahead, and I have pressed this case. One of the things that 4G mobile broadband will bring to rural areas is liberation for public services. Instead of having to return to bases that may be an hour’s drive away, it will be a great change to be able to work on the go. That will improve services for our residents. Given that Parliament has pressed for 98% coverage of 4G, at some point in the future—probably in 18 months’ time—it would be right for the winning bidder to be able to come to the Government and say, “This is our deployment plan. Help us achieve it.” I am sure the Opposition would welcome constructive talks on that. Indeed, those were referred to when the announcement was made on 7 September 2012.

I have had representations from Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB about its concerns on why it sees the measure as the Government potentially opening the door to other changes coming through. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, is absolutely passionate in his love of the English countryside. He wants to see sensitive, appropriate development where existing brownfield sites may not be the solely suitable place for development. I am sure he is not proposing getting rid of the green belt or AONBs, so I am more than persuaded and fully endorse the Government’s approach.

The Government are made up of constituency MPs who have AONBs and national parks in their constituencies. I know no Government Members more passionate about defending the quality of life in their constituency. I support the clause.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 4:15 pm, 29th November 2012

The Chair is always right, but you, Mr Davies, were certainly right to allow a clause stand part debate. We have had a good and honest debate. There is clearly a division of opinion in Committee about the merits of the clause, but it is important to explore all the different areas. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Halesowen and Rowley Regis and for Suffolk Coastal for their contributions, and I also thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh South.

I want to go back to the points made at the beginning by the hon. Member for City of Durham. She told us—I wrote it down, but I stand corrected if I am wrong—that local authorities were actively facilitating the roll-out of broadband. I am afraid that is simply not the case in many parts of the country. It certainly is not the case in the northern national parks where broadband coverage, as I have said to the Committee before, is extremely poor at less than 30%. If like me, the hon. Lady wants more visitors to the parks, how do people book their visits and their hotels and bed and breakfasts? Such enterprises require broadband coverage.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The examples I gave were from national park authorities.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Indeed. That is where we want to see faster roll-out of broadband. The hon. Lady asked me about two specific points that I want to reply to. First, she asked why we have gone back on the commitment we made in the November 2011 consultation on overhead lines. The answer is simple. We have listened to the consultation. The responses showed that the proposed approach in the document would not work. It would be too costly and too onerous and it would have meant that more rural and remote areas would simply not have been served commercially.

Secondly, the hon. Lady suggested—I think inadvertently—that BT had not provided evidence to the Committee, but it provided written evidence. I can share one conclusion of that evidence, which is in front of the Committee. Under the current planning regime and deployment under current rules, BT stated:

“The net impact of this is that hundreds of thousands of customers will be at risk of being excluded from high-speed broadband services where planning constraints prevent deployment.”

That is exactly what the Bill seeks to address.

The hon. Lady then got into fantasy territory. There was talk of people tripping over cabinets, banging their heads on overhead wires and not being able to see views of Snowdon or whatever. I cannot accept that the clause will result in any significant degradation of the countryside. It is not a free-for-all; there will be consultation and a code on siting practices. Local authorities, particularly those involved in the Government side of the roll-out, will be in a powerful position, because they will be doing the procurement and will be able to negotiate with individual providers.

Clause 7 contains an enabling power that allows secondary legislation in the form of the electronic communications code to be amended to contribute to delivery of the proposed relaxation of planning controls to speed up the deployment of fixed broadband. To  support the power to make those regulations, clause 7 disapplies, as we have heard, the duties in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty legislation to have regard to environmental considerations, which simply aligns the legislation with the Communications Act 2003, as amended.

Several concerns have been raised, but as I have set out to the Committee and as the Committee heard when we took evidence, the need to provide broadband to people in areas that are not covered at the moment, and who would not otherwise be covered if we did not relax the planning controls, is real, and the benefit to local economies is clear. We are proposing to relax planning requirements for five years to allow street cabinets and new poles to be deployed without the need for prior approval everywhere except in sites of special scientific interest. Relaxing those controls will provide certainty for providers looking to invest, as well as reducing the cost of deployment, which is key given that up to 80% of the costs of rolling out superfast broadband are in the civil works. We do not believe that those changes will lead to a proliferation of overhead cables, as providers will be expected to explore sharing existing infrastructure before deploying new poles. Local authorities will also have the power, as I have said, to influence how services are deployed in consultation with the supplier when they are procuring projects under the Broadband Delivery UK programme.

We will be publishing the consultation before Christmas, detailing our plans for relaxing the requirements for broadband cabinet and new pole deployment in protected areas. It will be clear from that document that we do not intend to alter the existing statutory obligation for providers to consult local authorities on the siting of their apparatus and to minimise any impact. The providers are committed to working with other stakeholders, such as the LGA and the Planning Officers Society, to develop a code of best siting practice to assuage some of the concerns about whether our proposals would result in any kind of free-for-all. There will be no such thing, but we believe that action is necessary to ensure that we have a communications infrastructure that is fit for the 21st century, which will enable all parts of the country to grow and will allow as many households as possible to benefit from superfast broadband. That is why we need clause 7. If the hon. Lady wants to delete it, I urge my hon. Friends to support it.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 3.

Division number 6 Decision Time — Clause 7 - Electronic communications code: the need to promote growth

Aye: 11 MPs

No: 3 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.