Superfast Broadband Delivery: Somerset

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

My hon. Friend is an excellent pacemaker—she runs slightly in front of me. I am coming to that point, but it is very helpful for the Minister to hear such things twice.

There is another part to the point about the change in the market and whether state aid is relevant. There is also the frustration that communities feel when they have got themselves motivated to bring in an alternative provider, such as TrueSpeed, Voneus or Openreach, and when they have fibre to the premise already, and yet their roads are now being closed and dug up with their tax money to deliver something that causes huge inconvenience to them while it is being put in, and which they have already got. A number of communities have written to me not to criticise the delay in the Gigaclear programme but to ask, “Why on earth are you still digging up our roads and blocking off our village when we have already got ourselves sorted and we have got it? Can we not have our tax money spent on improvements to our junction or a new road or something else?”

I know that is not how it works, but it certainly underlines the case for re-assessing the priorities that Gigaclear has been set by Connecting Devon and Somerset, so that Gigaclear focuses on areas where we know the market will not be able to provide over the next 24 months, rather than focusing on areas, as is the case at the moment with its early areas, that are in direct competition, particularly with TrueSpeed. I am not sure that that is the most effective spending of Government money.

As my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow pointed out, we have been given extra money by the Government to look at further broadband improvement in rural areas. There is a real opportunity to take the money that the Government have announced—I know that the Minister will be enthusiastic to remind us of the vast sums of money that the Government have made available to Devon and Somerset—and to add it to the £5 million-plus already available in gainshare from Openreach from phase 1 of the CDS roll-out, and the substantial additional money that is still to come as part of that gainshare, and look at where that combination of funds could be used as an intervention to deliver the final 5%.

We know now, by definition, what the final 5% is, because phase 2 delivers everything but the final 5%, so surely we can deliver that final 5% concurrently rather than waiting until we have connected the 95th percentile to get on with connecting the 96th through 100th percentiles. It seems to me that the money is already available. The gainshare is coming onstream very quickly. We have a real opportunity to get the whole thing cracked in a few years by taking advantage of what the market is now providing.

In some ways, we have an embarrassment of riches, because in some parts of Somerset we now have two entirely independent fibre-to-the-premise networks being dug in on very remote rural lanes, which is a slightly absurd situation. In small communities such as Badgworth, Biddisham and Lympsham, people will soon end up being able to choose which fibre-to-the-premise provider they want to use—not the internet service provider, but actually who is going to put the fibre to their front door. I am not sure that that is actually what taxpayers’ money should be being used for.