Superfast Broadband Delivery: Somerset

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 13th November 2018.

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Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells 11:00 am, 13th November 2018

I think my hon. Friend means that nothing has come yet as a consequence of the phase 2 contract, and she is absolutely right. The phase 1 contract, which was a fibre to the cabinet deal, is now complete in its delivery. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses in my constituency have benefited from that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has seen the same in hers. She is absolutely right that we are more than six months into the delivery window, and it has been over a year since the contract was signed. Not one constituent of mine is a Gigaclear customer yet, and I know from my hon. Friend’s intervention that it is the same in her constituency, too.

Gigaclear’s position is what it is because they were supported by the Carillion group, which met its demise. I think it is now clear that Gigaclear has quite inexplicably failed to understand that a lot of roads in Devon and Somerset are single-track lanes, which require somewhat more endeavour to dig up and somewhat more planning around road closures—it is not possible simply to go down one side of the road or even on the verge to the left or right.

I am inclined to agree with some of the comments from the county councils. There was overconfidence on the part of senior management at Gigaclear: they were telling the Connecting Devon and Somerset leadership and our county councils that all was fine, when it was obvious that things had not progressed as they should have. In the light of that, we need to ensure that what Gigaclear now says it is capable of doing is realistic. It has already overpromised once. As it seeks to put together a remedial plan to deliver the contract, we must ensure that it is at a realistic pace, so that, crucially, our constituents can have certainty about when their broadband will arrive. The Government, the Broadband Delivery UK programme and the county councils will want to be certain about the continued financial support that Gigaclear has secured.

I will raise some issues later that make the business case slightly less sound. It needs to be tested by BDUK and CDS to ensure that Gigaclear is still the answer, especially since the market has changed and commercial delivery is happening. When Gigaclear gets to communities as part of the state aid programme, it may well find that they already have fibre—it will have already been taken up. Gigaclear might not hit its uptake targets or realise the customers that it was expecting to. Now that Gigaclear is operating in a more competitive environment than the one that it negotiated when it took on the CDS contract, we need to look robustly at whether their numbers still stack up and whether we need to relook at the intervention area. In the briefing to MPs last week, which was the first indication that we had had of what the remedial pan would be, Gigaclear said that by the summer of 2020 it would deliver 40% to 50% of all that it had promised to have completed by 2020. That is a significant reduction in the pace of delivery, and Gigaclear now wants to deliver the remainder of the contract by 2022.