Relief for telecommunications infrastructure

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 9th February 2017.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Before I open my remarks on whether the clause should stand part of the Bill, having consulted with the registrar of standards, I need to declare that my partner works for a company that certainly manages and I believe installs mobile telecoms infrastructure.

I intend to explore the Minister’s thinking on the case for the clause. In the 2016 autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that the Government would provide 100% business rates relief for new full-fibre infrastructure over a five-year period from 1 April this year. In the context of the significant concern about BT and the way in which Openreach is working, and about the profits it and other bits of the industry have been able to generate, why is that particular provision needed? I ask it as a probing question.

Clearly, there is an opportunity cost to Ministers’ decision to offer full business rates relief for five years. All of us recognise the need to speed up access to the very best broadband telecoms not only in rural areas, in the context of the previous debate, but for businesses and households in my constituency, which complain about slow access to the newest broadband infrastructure. One wonders whether it is not the money, as full business rates relief for telecoms infrastructure will not offer up huge sums of money to those installing such infrastructure. However, there is clearly an opportunity cost in other areas.

Ministers do not appear to be cracking down enough on Ofcom or BT about the speed at which the broadband is being rolled out. How does the Minister see the clause making a real difference in the context of the considerable profits already being generated by the companies operating in this area?

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I hope the Minister can point to this, because I cannot find it, but my hon. Friend referred to the Chancellor’s announcement that mentioned a five-year period. I cannot find a reference to a five-year period in schedule 3. It may be there and I just cannot see it, or it is somewhere else and the Minister can point it out to me.

I see in schedule 3 more than four pages and five formulae. The ever-helpful Library brief cites on page 37 documentation from the autumn statement saying that this measure

“would reduce business rate revenue by £10 million”.

For a company such as BT, £10 million is not a huge amount of money, but for everyone in this room, it is. Nationally and relatively—I stress “relatively”—it is not a huge amount of money, but we get a four-page schedule and five formulae. That strikes me as completely over the top.

We see in schedule 3—on page 46, lines 30 and 31, page 47, lines 37 to 38, and page 48, coincidentally lines 30 and 31 again—the same wording:

“any conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State by regulations are satisfied on that day.”

So here we have the Secretary of State and more regulations. Then when I look at the power to make regulations in paragraph 12 on page 50 of the Bill, it says:

“any power to make regulations conferred by virtue of this Schedule”— schedule 3—

“includes power to make provision having effect in relation to times before the coming into force of this Schedule”.

I would like the Minister to talk the Committee through that a bit. No doubt he will say something like this happens all the time, but I am a bit uneasy about what seems on the face of it to be a retrospective power in schedule 3, paragraph 12. That is a little worrying. Even though I appreciate it may be a power that would be used or is intended to be used to lessen the tax on a particular business or set of businesses, I still find the retrospection a little troubling.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

The Government intend to support the roll-out of a full-fibre telecommunications infrastructure for all. Full-fibre broadband will deliver a step change in the speed, service quality, security and reliability of broadband services. It will provide important support for a more productive economy and boost the prospects for economic growth.

In the 2016 autumn statement, to which the hon. Member for Harrow West referred, the Government announced £1 billion of new funding to boost the UK’s digital infrastructure. That includes investment of £400 million in a new digital infrastructure investment fund to boost commercial finance for emerging fibre broadband providers. Alongside that package, the Chancellor announced 100% rate relief for a new full-fibre infrastructure in England. Clause 8 and schedule 3 will introduce that relief, which will apply for five years, commencing on 1 April 2017. Hence this part of the Bill will have a retrospective effect. I hope that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West understands the principle behind the retrospection.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I will come to the cost a little later. The schedule provides powers to award rate relief to telecom networks. Some networks appear on the local rating lists held by local authorities and some appear on the central rating list held by the Secretary of State. The schedule therefore introduces the new relief for both local rating lists and the central rating list.

The powers in the schedule will allow the Secretary of State to set conditions on when the relief will apply. Through these powers, we will target the relief on operators of telecom networks that install new fibre on their networks. That will incentivise and reward those operators who invest in the broadband network.

These are concepts that we have not previously defined for business rates. The powers in the schedule will therefore allow us to develop definitions with experts in the telecoms and business rate sectors. By taking this approach we can ensure that we accurately capture in the relief only those parts of the telecoms networks that comprise new fibre. There is a distinction there because it is important—by definition, this is an incentive—that we incentivise the laying of new fibre cable. We are not looking to fund fibre cable that may have already been laid but not switched on, so to speak. I am absolutely clear that this is for new fibre.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 2:45 pm, 9th February 2017

As I understand it—as ever, I am open to correction—the provisions in the clause and accompanying schedule are by nature, to use the Minister’s words, incentives: a financial incentive to encourage, in particular but not only, rural broadband and better internet connections, which we all support. It appears to be—I stress “appears”—a bung for private industry to do something that Ofcom could order it to do. Why are we being asked to do it in the Bill, rather than Ofcom just doing it by mandating companies?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

It is clear that the thrust of what we are trying to do, as I said at the outset, is to bring this forward as part of a package—£1 billion of new funding to boost the UK’s digital infrastructure, including £400 million in new digital infrastructure investment and a fund that is dedicated to that—to boost commercial finance for emerging fibre broadband providers. It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands that this measure is designed to widen the market in that sense.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I am grateful for the Minister’s generosity in giving way. The Library briefing gives some figures on what this measure would cost each year, and I know he said he would get on to that. Are the figures for the cost each year included in the £1 billion to which he has referred at least twice, or are they in addition to it?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

That is a very good question, which I will write to the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Committee on. The overall cost, which the hon. Member for Harrow West asked about—he wanted me to go into what the cost was in each of the first five years, but I am not able to do that today so perhaps I can satisfy him in writing—is £60 million over that particular period.

To pick up the thread that I was on, the powers in the schedule will allow the Secretary of State to determine the level of relief to be awarded. As I said, the Government intend to allow telecom operators 100% rate relief, but only for new fibre. That new fibre will of course form part of existing telecoms networks with existing ratings assessments. Through the operation of this scheme, we intend to ensure that relief is only for new fibre, as I have clarified to the Committee. To achieve that, the powers in the schedule will allow us to set, by a formula contained in regulations, the correct level of relief for each property, reflecting the amount of the network that qualifies for the relief. That will be based on a certificate from the valuation office of the amount of rateable value attributable to the new fibre.

Hon. Members will recognise that this is a technical area, but one in which we need desperately to ensure that the provisions are correct. Therefore, my Department will shortly issue draft regulations for consultation on how to implement the relief for new fibre. On that basis, I hope that clause 8 and schedule 3 will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3