Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 3:13 pm, 24th June 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing the debate. It is pretty clear from the large attendance that the issue features strongly in our mailbags and inboxes—when people can email us at all.

It would be incredibly easy to knock BT as effectively a monopoly supplier, but that would be too easy a goal. I represent a rural seat, and I am very grateful for the way senior BT executives have made themselves available to come here for meetings to discuss the future and the service. Only 43% of North Dorset is covered by superfast broadband. That might seem to be the Elysian fields to some hon. Members, but in my judgment 43% is not particularly good. I would like the Minister today to consider three key points. One is the huge amount of irritation caused by descoping, which is totally bogus in my opinion. I do not think that the contractor—in this case BT—should be allowed to descope areas that it has previously included in its submissions. I am thinking of Durweston and Stourpaine, which are the Blandford 8 cabinet box number in my constituency, and Motcombe and Bourton, which are served by Shaftesbury 15 and 16. Those have suddenly been dropped out, because they appeared either too difficult or too expensive. The rules should not have allowed the possibility for such areas, and indeed many others, to be dropped out of the scope of the contract.

Third parties are also, as I understand it, holding up delivery. I understand that some problems have arisen with regard to wayleaves from the Forestry Commission and in particular, in my constituency, the Crown Estate. If the Minister could use his good offices to bring pressure on to those and other executive agencies of the Crown that would be enormously helpful.

We also know, I think, that BT was incredibly heavy-handed in the bidding process. I know from my previous experience as a councillor in Oxfordshire that there was quite a lot of arm twisting by BT at the county council to go totally with BT—otherwise it would not play ball—even though others were trying to come in and fill the gaps. I am sad to say that was also the experience in North Dorset where a community-led initiative, Trailway, wanted to fill the gap; but BT told Dorset County Council clearly that if it supported the group or gave it any cause for hope, it would walk away from delivery for the whole county. In what, to use the old term, we might call the big society, such community and rural groups, which are well known for their self-sufficiency, resource and ingenuity, are exactly the people we should champion.

That is done and we are where we are, but I ask the Minister to consider putting on pressure in any further discussions and negotiations with BT, so that where it has decided not to fill in the gap, black hole or whatever we care to call it, it must be able to provide all the relevant data and information to community groups and other providers, such as Wessex Internet in my constituency, who want to fill the gap.