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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.