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

Part of Growth and Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 29th November 2012.

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

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.