Superfast Broadband Delivery: Somerset

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:20 am on 13th November 2018.

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Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 11:20 am, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to be here. I thank my hon. Friend James Heappey for securing the debate and my hon. Friends who have spoken. The debate allows me the opportunity to update hon. Members on the Government’s plans and progress towards ensuring universal high-speed broadband.

Broadband connectivity is just as, if not more, important in rural communities across the UK as in urban centres. That is why the Government and local partners are investing £1.7 billion in the superfast broadband programme, which has provided superfast coverage with speeds of more than 24 megabits per second to around 5 million premises in areas that would not otherwise have been covered by commercially funded roll-out. Coverage of homes and businesses in the UK continues to increase beyond the 95% policy objective that was achieved less than a year ago in December 2017—up from just 45% in 2010, when this Government entered office. That is a significant achievement.

At least £210 million of funding will be available to support further investment as a result of efficiency savings in the initial roll-out. High levels of take-up mean that gain-share funding from the additional profits from the network is projected to reach at least £712 million. That means a total of £922 million will be available to support further roll-out. Of that, £4.7 million will go on work that will cover areas including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells, and that is being modelled by Openreach as we speak. He and other hon. Friends present will recognise that a substantial improvement has been achieved in their constituencies over the past few years, but that there is still more to do, which I accept.

Superfast coverage in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has increased from 15.6% in 2013 to over 90%, while more than 96% of premises have speeds of 10 megabits per second or above. Connecting Devon and Somerset, or the CDS project, which is delivering across both Somerset and Devon, has to date provided superfast broadband access to over 300,000 premises that would have otherwise been left behind.

It was inevitable that reaching more rural homes and businesses would require building entirely new networks, which requires major civil engineering. Gigaclear seemed well placed to provide that following the open procurement exercise. The contracts were awarded on the basis of the supplier being financially robust enough to support the roll-out, providing the necessary broadband speeds under state aid rules, and representing good value for money for the required public investment. My hon. Friend asked a question about state aid; the short answer is that all projects begin by testing the market. We take the view that state aid is legal in an area where the market has delivered. I will write to him about that in more detail in due course.

There are a number of reasons why there has been a delay up until now. These include poor operational capacity and, frankly, poor decision-making within Gigaclear linked to their supply chain management. Partly as a result of the adverse impact of the collapse of Carillion earlier this year, it has become apparent that the resources were not in place for the contracts to be managed successfully.

I recognise that communities that have not yet got the expected coverage, such as those in the beautiful rural parts of the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Wells, for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), will feel left behind. We recognise that that is not good enough, especially when timescales extend, potentially, out to 2022.

Outline remedial plans that push delivery back to mid-2022 have been provided. Both CDS and BDUK will, however, require key reassurances regarding capacity and resources, a commitment to accelerate deployment and robust evidence that these new proposals can be delivered. We are expecting those reassurances in the coming days.