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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 2:00 pm on 29th November 2012.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 2:00 pm, 29th November 2012

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.