Broadband Rollout: Devon and Somerset

– in Westminster Hall at 4:31 pm on 2nd December 2020.

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Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 4:31 pm, 2nd December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the rollout of broadband in Devon and Somerset.

I want to start by speaking about the importance of broadband. Covid-19 has accelerated the need for faster broadband connections. Whether it is for online voting in Parliament, meeting on Zoom or online shopping, we are more reliant than ever on the internet. Even I have taught myself how to use Zoom—you will not realise what that involved, Ms Fovargue. Doing Zoom meetings in the office or at home on the farm has had the added benefit of my being able to put up the Devon flag behind me.

Living on a farm, I am fortunate to have been connected through a fibre-to-the-premises connection in the last few weeks, but I want all my constituents in Tiverton and Honiton to have the same. Unfortunately, the rollout of broadband has been anything but superfast and too many people do not have access to superfast connections. Nationally, 95% of premises can receive a superfast broadband speed, but in Tiverton and Honiton the figure is just 82%. We are 627th out of constituencies in the UK, and we are 9th lowest in England for superfast availability. In Bampton, just 60% of properties have superfast broadband access. In Beer, it is just 68%. In Kilmington, Colyton and Uplyme, it is just 39%.

Two other constituencies in Devon—Torridge and West Devon, and Central Devon—have even lower superfast broadband speeds available than Tiverton and Honiton. And I expect that my hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for East Devon (Simon Jupp) will probably say that the connection there is not brilliant. It is bound to be brilliant in Totnes, of course.

I appreciate that the constituencies in Devon and Somerset are rural, but the Government have been making promises on this matter for years. In 2010, when I first became an MP, the coalition Government promised that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. The UK is currently 13th in Europe, behind Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. In 2015, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson, who is now the Prime Minister, arrived in Parliament and quickly became co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication. He will know more than most that the rollout of broadband has been far too slow, complicated and bureaucratic. In fairness to the Prime Minister, he has put resources in to put that right.

In Devon and Somerset, we have seen Connecting Devon and Somerset promising—again—the world for years, but consistently missing its own deadlines, avoiding scrutiny and then putting out press releases about how fantastically well everything is going. I am afraid there is very little credibility left. In 2012, £27 million of state aid funding was provided by the Government to fund the Connecting Devon and Somerset phase 2 rollout of superfast broadband, and we were all very excited by it. That was eight years ago, and there has not been a great deal of progress since.

In November 2014, Connecting Devon and Somerset launched its first invitation to tender for phase 2, but cancelled it the next month. In 2015, CDS began negotiations with BT Openreach to hand it all phase 2 contracts. Those negotiations then collapsed: BT said that CDS was not prepared to pay enough money, and CDS claimed that BT was not investing enough of its own. There was great history between both organisations. I imagine the fault was on both sides, but that is a real problem.

Further on, in December 2016, five phase 2 contracts were awarded to Gigaclear, and one in north Devon was awarded to Airband. I will put my hand on my heart and say that I was happy to bring in Gigaclear, but listen to what happened next: in September 2018, CDS suspended all five Gigaclear contracts after Gigaclear requested an extension. There is no doubt that Gigaclear overstretched and was under-capitalised, but, again, that extension request beyond the completion date of 31 December 2020. Now we would think that that date was quite close, would we not, Minister?

In December 2019, after cancelling the Gigaclear contracts, CDS launched another tendering process to award the phase 2 contracts. The announcement was meant to be made last month, but we are still waiting for it—all the time, there are delays. Instead of blaming other people for their failures, we need full transparency from those at Connecting Devon and Somerset, and we need the Minister to whip them into shape. I know that the Minister has put someone from his Department on the CDS board, but he ought to take over the board if he wants to make any difference. I do not believe in taking prisoners, as the Minister knows, and I have no intention of taking prisoners today, because I have lived through all this. I actually supported CDS in the past, but it has not delivered.

Throughout the process, there has been great concern about value for money. I am glad that we have a responsible local council in Devon that always thinks carefully about taxpayers’ money, but because of the delays over the last eight years, constituents have had no option but to pay for alternatives. Business and residents have had to pay Openreach themselves to move into the 21st century, forming community fibre partnerships. I pay great tribute to those who have done so and to the Government for putting forward the voucher system.

We have had other entrants into the market, such as Jurassic Fibre, which has connected a lot in Honiton and Axminster and has done a good job. Great companies such as Jurassic Fibre are trying to connect people with faster broadband because the local government scheme is failing to act quickly enough. Of course, as we connect all those industrial states and take out the bigger sections, we are also making it more expensive to deliver the whole project. Every year, as we delay, it basically gets more expensive.

Even if CDS did manage to announce new phase 2 contracts this side of Christmas, we have already been told that there is a six-month implementation period. How much longer an implementation period do we need, Minister? We have had eight years already! Then, the contracts will take at least four years to complete, taking us to 2024. Is that acceptable, Minister? Was the whole point of cancelling the Gigaclear contracts not that December 2020 was too late? Now we are talking about 2024.

Surely, the system is far too bureaucratic and slow. I know that this is very politically incorrect, but was it not George Bernard Shaw who said, “If you lose one wife, that’s acceptable. If you lose two, that’s careless”? How many contracts does CDS need to lose before it is considered careless? Like I say, it is all terribly politically incorrect, but hon. Members can see the point I am making.

What more can be done to bring CDS to heel and speed up the entire process? We need to build in the more rural and disadvantaged areas of the UK, where the commercial market will not build without subsidy. That is what the Minister and the Government have been doing.

I understand that we have set £5 billion of funding to deliver broadband to the final 20% of properties that will not be reached by the commercial networks, but in the 2020 spending review last week the Chancellor allocated just £1.2 billion of that funding for the years 2020 to 2025. Will the Minister please explain why that funding seems to have been cut? Will it be replaced? The Government have also downgraded their ambitions in the national infrastructure strategy to 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, instead of 100%. Again, why has that happened?

The danger is that broadband companies will concentrate on building their networks in areas where they can make a commercial return—who can blame them for that?—and put their plans for rural Britain on the backburner. When the other companies that are building in my constituency are asked about the Blackdown hills, all of a sudden they go very quiet and say, “That may take a little longer.”

I thank the Minister for being here today—I am sure he is enjoying it. We all want to get broadband to our constituents. I have made light of it, but far too many mistakes have been made over the past 10 years and I want to avoid that happening again. What reassurances can the Minister give my constituents today that the Government, through Connecting Devon and Somerset, have a workable plan that will deliver, change lives for the better and connect them and the constituents of my fellow MPs from Devon and Somerset? Joking aside, it has been too long. A lot of public money has been put into it and it has not delivered. Not all the problems are with Connecting Devon and Somerset, but it has been a very sorry story. I do not want to come here in a few years’ time to make the same speech and say, “We’ve wasted more years.” Please, Minister, can we have some answers today?

Photo of David Warburton David Warburton Conservative, Somerton and Frome 4:42 pm, 2nd December 2020

It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Neil Parish. As ever, he is dauntless in his defence of and support for our rural communities. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

I seem to be the only representative of Somerset here, so I will fly the flag as best I can. I do not disagree with anything that my hon. Friend said, but Connecting Devon and Somerset, Somerset County Council and the Government have achieved some things in improving connectivity for us. They have connected more premises than any other English programme. Coverage is now 90%, and more than 300,000 homes and businesses have decent broadband. CDS has nearly 5,700 broadband vouchers out on the streets, which is 7% of all UK vouchers, I understand.

Despite all that has been achieved so far, there is still a great deal more to be done. The mistakes that my hon. Friend highlighted are all too apparent. It is still the case that too many homes and businesses across our counties do not have access to decent broadband speeds, and the pandemic has shown even more clearly that digital connectivity is like being connected to water or electricity—it is an essential utility and a vital service.

Sadly, I see people’s frustrations—particularly those from rural and very rural areas, like much of my patch—weighing heavily in my inbox every day. I am sure Openreach is sick of my letters and emails, but tackling those frustrations is crucial for the communities that I am proud to represent.

Rural communities throughout the UK—Somerset is no exception—suffer from a productivity gap with urban areas and, as I said in last month’s debate on the rural productivity gap, the answer lies in technology and infrastructure. Even before lockdown, a quarter of the rural population worked from home, and that will only increase, but Somerset is sprinkled with areas that have unreliable, intermittent or very slow connectivity—including my own house. If small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine of the rural economy, how can we get that engine started and running smoothly?

Investment in those rural dead zones is of course great news. The shared rural network agreement is another step forward, but there is still the idea that the rural economy is all based around agriculture. Actually, alongside agriculture, there are huge numbers of blossoming, blooming, burgeoning start-ups and growing businesses. For example, the logistics and supply-chain company Vallis Commodities in my own Frome utterly depends on Somerset’s digital infrastructure. We must stoke those businesses’ fires and feed them the nutrients they need—if I am not mixing my metaphors.

The Government were elected on a promise to level up the UK, and I hugely welcome the investment in physical infrastructure that the south-west is beginning to see, with the dualling of the A303—finally—being a great example and a huge relief. In my constituency, I am delighted that we have got the Restore Your Railways feasibility funding for a new station between Somerton and Langport. We are starting to bridge the physical divide in the country, which will pay great dividends, but our counties have vast untapped economic potential, and it is the digital divide that needs to be bridged for that to be truly unlocked. With every passing day, the divide grows and becomes more and more impassable. So my message to the Minister is: come on folks, let’s get building.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon 4:47 pm, 2nd December 2020

I thank my near neighbour, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, for securing the debate. I hope he will not mind me highlighting his personal interest in the issue: on weekly calls among Devon MPs, we often miss his contributions because his internet falls down. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the challenges we face as a region and highlight the need to improve connections across our two counties.

We must deliver superfast broadband across East Devon, not least because many more people are working from home and—let us face it—some will not return to the office. For far too long, East Devon has suffered from delayed contracts and patchy upgrades. It is not acceptable for anyone in Sidmouth, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Topsham, Ottery St Mary, Cranbrook, St Loyes, Whimple, Clyst St Mary or any village in East Devon to be unable to make a video call or watch a TV programme using a decent internet connection in 2020. Feniton and Whimple, for instance, have only 63% superfast availability with download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second as defined by Ofcom. That compares with 97% for Exmouth.

Given the failures of Gigaclear, covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, to roll out superfast broadband under the Connecting Devon and Somerset programme, Jurassic Fibre is plugging some of the gap successfully for a large part of East Devon, stretching from Clyst St George to Exmouth. I commend Jurassic Fibre for cracking on and connecting more of East Devon, but in the village of Farringdon, internet download speeds have been less than 5 megabits per second. One of the village’s first upgrades earlier this year was LittlePod, who manufacture and export around the world a special kind of vanilla paste, as the International Trade Secretary saw at first hand this time last year. It now has a 500 megabits per second business connection—and I am extremely envious.

The reason I talk about that private sector involvement —ostensibly just one commercial provider in a portion of Devon and Somerset—is because it has made a real difference. Connecting Devon and Somerset, working with Devon County Council, will have to plug the gaps in commercially funded networks. Clearly, as has been highlighted in the debate, there is more to do on all fronts.

Connecting Devon and Somerset is working to solve the issues and listening to concerns raised by MPs on behalf of constituents. It will need to be held to account and be transparent on public reporting processes, so that it can clearly demonstrate the progress it makes. It must crack on and get our counties connected.

The last Budget contained a commitment to spend £5 billion on connecting hard-to-reach premises. I know the Minister is committed to exploring every opportunity to get fibre broadband rolled out across East Devon and our county. We must work together to deliver for Devon and ensure that no community is left behind.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 4:50 pm, 2nd December 2020

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. It is also a privilege to follow my hon. Friend Simon Jupp, who name-checked every part of his constituency with great confidence and remains a strong champion for his patch, and for digital connectivity. I congratulate Neil Parish on securing the debate. It is pleasing to hear that he has managed to learn the delights of Zoom and I suspect that the whole House will be waiting to see how he gets on with Google Connect, Skype and Microsoft Teams. Perhaps we can have another debate about how he does with those.

As has already been raised in weekly calls with Devon MPs, the problem of connectivity is profound in the south-west, as was alluded to by my hon. Friend David Warburton. That issue has been readily addressed and identified by those who have been sent home to work from home over the past 11 months, and who have seen the need to interact with colleagues and businesses, and find investment and opportunity through their digital connectivity. Failing to identify and address the issue is only likely to see that gap and gulf in the south-west expand beyond where it is already, and to see a lack of opportunity presenting itself compared with some cities.

Investment was mentioned. The south-west needs investment. It is a big policy of this Government to make sure that we are levelling up across all regions. Well, the south-west needs that. In Bristol and Exeter we have seen the benefits that investment can bring, but unless we can ensure that we have a robust digital telecommunications network that not only allows people to work from home, but attracts businesses to operate from across the peninsula, we cannot hope to see the investment and opportunity that we seek to provide for younger generations in years to come.

While I do not have the historical knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton about Connecting Devon and Somerset, I do have a sense that CDS has failed to deliver in the short time since I was elected. In my constituency there are 52,000 premises, of which 10,000 residential and non-residential properties are still outstanding to be connected. The failure to connect them has been an ongoing issue for over five years. That makes it impossible for many of my constituents to launch their businesses, work from home or do any of the things that they might have been expected to do this year.

As has been mentioned, CDS has collaborated with Openreach and it is welcome that there is a £6 million programme and vouchers, and that Airband is being promoted across the area. Unfortunately, unless CDS’s phase 2 contracts are issued there will be no opportunity to build on what we have tried to suggest in our manifesto and in the Budget, in terms of levelling up in the south-west. The delay has come at a significant cost to residents, who have had to shoulder the burden themselves rather than expecting a service that is widespread across the country to be delivered. We have promised it and it is our duty to be able to deliver it for them.

If we look at our opportunities in terms of the businesses that we have, whether it is the great Salcombe, Brixham and Dartmouth gin distillers who wish to sell their produce across the world—and they do, by the way—or the photonics industry, a £13.5 billion industry that relies on digital connectivity even to function, we need to make sure that we have robust connectivity. Our fishermen and farmers also need to make sure they have strong access, to fill in their quota forms or report back to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that they are fulfilling the environmental land management programme in future years. Those are all things that allow our society and our communities to function better. I hope that the Minister will address those issues and really assume the leadership that we need in the south-west. The south-west MPs are united on the issue. Digital and transport connectivity are essential, and we will keep knocking on his door about the issue until it is addressed. I hope that we will not need to have another debate like this.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 4:55 pm, 2nd December 2020

My constituency’s connectivity means it is ranked 634th of the 650 UK constituencies.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I did beat you.

Almost a fifth of residents still do not receive the universal service obligation’s 10 megabits per second. Our average download speed is less than 37 megabits per second, compared with a UK average of 61. The only thing slower than our broadband speed is attempts to connect properties by CDS. I am delighted that things are now progressing, and I recognise the complexities of procurement in this area, but an alarming amount of time seems to have been taken, still to be selecting suppliers.

I note that major players in the sector are not participating in the current procurement process, because we are a whole technology behind in Devon and Somerset. I am determined that North Devon will not continue to languish at the bottom of the broadband league, and have taken it upon myself to connect my own community to fibre broadband through a community fibre partnership, in conjunction with Openreach. Using our Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport vouchers and working directly with the industry seems to be the most likely method of connecting up my rural constituency; but the continuation of the Government’s voucher schemes is key to enabling communities to get connected. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to confirm that today.

Last week’s announcement that only 85% of the country will be connected by 2025 rather fills me with dread, as there seems to be an inevitability about hard-to-reach rural constituencies such as mine continuing to be left behind. Without the 100% target and full £5 billion commitment, will the industry be able to commit the resources and train the army of new engineers needed for even 85% to be reached? Given that CDS is still so busy with the previous technology, I ask that someone else manage the procurement and delivery of high-speed fibre in North Devon, and that that should be rapidly instigated, as the most commercially viable parts of my constituency are now being over-fibred by competing fibre companies, leaving harder-to-reach communities even less likely to see fibre.

When we talk about levelling up North Devon we are not expecting a new railway or motorway. We desperately need broadband to enable our businesses, young people and communities to have access to what other parts of the country take for granted. I spend far too long lobbying the Minister for better broadband, and I shamelessly do the same today. Please speed up everything to do with broadband in North Devon.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:58 pm, 2nd December 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I want to thank Neil Parish for calling the debate. It has been a huge pleasure for me to listen to so many excellent and well-informed contributions. As a north-east MP, who is not allowed to travel far at the moment, I feel that I have been on a tour of Somerset and Devon and I very much appreciated it. I feel for the Members who have eloquently expressed concern about the impact of the lack of the digital infrastructure they need and deserve on the people of Devon and Somerset. I do not know whether the Minister has enjoyed the debate quite as much, but I shall briefly summarise some of what was said.

I was amazed to learn that Tiverton and Honiton’s ranking was as low as 627th, but then I found that North Devon is even further down. Obviously there are comparisons to be made, and someone has to come top and bottom. Even so, despite Devon and Somerset having 1.5% of households in the country, 5% of homes there are located in notspots. In Somerset West, one in 20 households are unable to receive the minimum 10 megabits, which is the Government’s definition of decent broadband. That figure increases to nearly 12% of households in east and west Devon. The hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), for East Devon (Simon Jupp), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for North Devon, and for Tiverton and Honiton all emphasised how the pandemic had truly brought home to us the importance of connectivity at this time.

Every Member referenced the Connecting Devon and Somerset broadband scheme, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton described as too slow. However, the scheme exceeds the UK’s superfast broadband roll-out target set by the coalition Government, which called for 90% coverage by 2015. Unfortunately, mismanagement under the coalition Government meant that, nationally, the target was not reached and was missed by a year. If a local scheme that outperforms the Government’s is too slow and needs to be reviewed, the Government’s own position on broadband has been lacklustre and should also be up for review. [Interruption.] I do have mobile coverage here.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

The hon. Lady started her speech by saying that she felt the experience of our lack of connectivity in the south-west. She is more than welcome to come and experience it at any time.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I really am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that timely intervention. I meant to say that I felt for the experience, but I am keen to feel the actual experience in the gorgeous surroundings that he has so well described. The products and services sound so very attractive.

We have had 10 wasted years for telecoms infrastructure under this Government. I was a chartered engineer who worked in telecoms for 20 years before coming into Parliament, which I mention from time to time, and the decade that I have been in Parliament has coincided with a rapid relative decline in the quality of our telecommunications infrastructure. Labour made great strides in building a digital economy. Our Communications Act 2003 set out the strategy and vision for a decade. Our office of the internet was a world leader, and we oversaw the roll-out of the first generation of broadband to more than 50% of households by 2009.

Labour’s plans would have seen two-thirds of UK households have access to services of up to 40 megabits by 2015. Unfortunately, that is now not the case, consecutive Tory Governments having squandered that world-leading position. Several Members mentioned the need for effective competition and not the over-building of fibre to one home, and not the absence of any competition or a monopoly provider. Under Labour, we had competitive infrastructure competitions, including the local loop, but since then we have seen U-turns, dither and delay in infrastructure roll-out, including the BDUK scheme, which re-emphasised Openreach—indeed, BT—effectively as a monopoly provider. All phase 1 contracts and funding under the scheme went to British Telecom, and the Public Accounts Committee warned that that restricted the Department’s ability to insist on value for money. Will the Minister set out his strategy for encouraging effective competition, particularly in rural broadband? It is concerning to see that as a country that invented the fibre-optic cable—

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I shared the hon. Lady’s concern that Openreach had too much of a monopoly, but I have to say that since Openreach has stepped back from connecting Devon and Somerset, the situation has actually got worse, not better. Openreach is training 5,000 engineers every year, so there is a real need for it. Now that it has been split away reasonably successfully from BT, we can use Openreach much more.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman shows an understanding of network competition that I rarely find in this House. I can only agree with him that it is necessary to have effective separation. If Openreach is effectively separated and open to different over-the-top providers, having a monopoly position does not lead to monopolistic behaviours such as raising rents or offering low customer service, but it is necessary for that separation to occur. As I think has been said, it is also the case that BT responded to many of the Building Digital UK bids and ended up having a monopoly position. That was BT, not simply Openreach.

I want to focus for a couple of minutes on the economic importance of rolling out broadband. In 2018, the Conservative-run Somerset County Council highlighted the worry about regional productivity in its economic development strategy, which said:

“We are not as productive a District as we could be. Evidence shows a relative lack of dynamism in our economy with productivity levels below our potential and lower than those of the South-West and national levels.”

Across the country, only 8% to 10% of premises are connected to full-fibre broadband, compared with 97% in Japan. We are an innovative nation, but our innovation needs the digital platform to allow our small businesses to grow, particularly as our economy shifts online and we face the challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution, with its implications for everything from manufacturing to smart cities and addressing climate change.

I do not want to reiterate the Prime Minister’s sad history of flip-flopping over promises on delivering full fibre, but I will summarise it. Full fibre was supposed to be delivered by 2025, but that was then downgraded to gigabit-capable broadband to every home by 2019. As we have heard, only last week the Government sneaked out the Chancellor’s spending review plans to water down their broadband promise instead of keeping that manifesto commitment, and a smaller proportion of money has been made available.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton cited George Bernard Shaw. My recollection is that it was Oscar Wilde who wrote:

“To lose one parent…may be regarded as a misfortune;
to lose both looks like carelessness.”

That quote is absolutely appropriate in this case, because although we might understand one change in the Government’s commitment to broadband, a series of changes is either carelessness—which is negligent, given the importance of digital infrastructure to our economy—or, I am afraid, deliberately misleading.

I hope the Minister can set out how we will achieve in Devon and Somerset the digital infrastructure that is so richly deserved. I also hope he will talk a bit about the divide in digital skills, because as well as having the infrastructure, we need to ensure that everyone has access to the digital skills that mean they can use the infrastructure and reap the economic benefits. I am particularly concerned about access to infrastructure at home, which enables Zoom meetings and online education. Some 50% of rural premises have patchy and unreliable mobile reception, so I hope the Minister will say a word about 5G roll-out and the delays in coverage. We cannot allow the digital divide to exacerbate the current rural divides. I hope that the Minister will mention the universal service obligation, which the Government launched in March to great fanfare and which allows rural households to demand connectivity from BT. As I am aware from the north-east, however, an estimated 60,000 households across the country may be charged up to £100,000 for installation under that initiative. Does that count as a universal service obligation? How much does the Minister believe is too much to pay for the internet?

Digital is now at the heart of almost every policy area and online access is integral to people’s lives. I thank the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome, for East Devon, for Totnes and for North Devon—and, of course, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton—for their considered contributions to the debate, which represent their constituents’ interests now and in future. We must ensure that, as we build back better and level up, there is no rural digital divide that holds back parts of our country and a significant number of our constituencies.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:11 pm, 2nd December 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this debate; I do not think that anyone has ever tried to duff up the Government in such a good-natured way. That spirit was shared by all hon. Members, for better or worse.

I have had these conversations with all hon. Members present and other MPs across Devon and Somerset, because broadband now matters more than any other utility. Over the last year or so, we have learned how important digital connectivity is. It is not that useful for me to talk about how extensive the superfast programme has been or how 96% of the country is covered, because if people do not have it, they do not have it. I understand why hon. Members want to go back with good answers to parents trying to educate their children and to farmers trying to deal with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—a whole host of people from every aspect of society. Digital is what we now rely on, and what we will continue to rely on for economic growth and for essential parts of everyday life.

I completely understand why the debacle of the 13% of houses that Connecting Devon and Somerset has not managed to get connected is important to all hon. Members present. As my hon. Friend David Warburton generously pointed out, 87% of the programme has been delivered, but the fact remains that not far off 50,000 premises will be, at worst, nearly five years late. For what it is worth, I am sorry. It is important that, whether we blame Carillion for letting down Gigaclear, or Gigaclear for overpromising, the Government are sorry that we are in this position. That is an important starting point.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank the Minister for taking my comments in such good part. The Government have put people in from the Department to look at Connecting Devon and Somerset and to sit on its board, but that needs to be strengthened. These mistakes cannot go on being made time and time again. My plea to him is to pick it up. I understand that the Government may not want to run the scheme themselves, but, for goodness’ sake, they cannot let Connecting Devon and Somerset behave in that way any longer.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I want to try to look to the future. There are some bits of good news. I cannot remember his precise phrase—I am not sure if he literally asked me to grab Connecting Devon and Somerset by the throat—but we have certainly worked closely with it. He mentioned that we have made an appointment to the board. That is a signal of how closely and intensively we have worked with CDS to get these forthcoming procurements to a much better place.

I will talk about Devon and Somerset specifically, but it is also important to bear in mind that nationally, we are doing things to ensure that every barrier to a nationwide roll-out is removed; we are legislating for improved connectivity in blocks of flats and new builds; we are making it easier to dig up the roads and easier to repair the roads in a way that makes all of the nationwide roll-out go that bit faster. In Devon and Somerset, CDS is now in the final phase of that £38 million procurement that will deliver those final connections. Working with us in DCMS, what it has done—as is already public knowledge—is divide the remaining 50,000 premises into six lots to cover all parts of the region not currently addressed by the live Airband contract. The reason for taking that approach is to maximise competition, speed, and speed of roll-out wherever we possibly can.

We have teams in Building Digital UK that have covered commercial interest, state aid, value for money and delivery, all working intensively with CDS throughout the procurement process and supporting it at every stage. We could not have worked more closely, and that is in part because of the commitments that I made to Members when I came to the area to talk about CDS and we first made the decision that Gigaclear was not going to be in a position to revise its contract. We worked very closely with Gigaclear to try and get it to a point where we did not have to restart the process but, ultimately, I believe that restarting the process was the best way to secure the speed of connections that we need.

It is this close management that has ensured that the procurement is on the very shortest path to delivery that we could possibly have envisaged. To give my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton an idea, one procurement might routinely take nine months. Those six lots—those six procurements—will have been completed in around 10 months. He rightly highlighted the fact that we had aimed to get them done by the end of November. I think he would accept that quite a lot has happened this year that we were not expecting, but it is my expectation that they will be done by Christmas.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

If my hon. Friend will let me continue. I know everyone says it will be done by Christmas, but I mean this Christmas. That procurement process, as he can imagine, is very much ongoing now. I ask him gently not to tempt me to say anything that might derail that procurement process in the last three weeks, but that is where we are at.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I understand the point that the Minister is making about the six contracts, but he should not forget it was Connecting Devon and Somerset that decided to split it up into six contracts. I am not necessarily against that, but I do not think it can be broadly said it has managed to deliver six contracts in 10 months. Previously, it was one contract; CDS decided to split it up, so it is taking more time. Yes, it will be at Christmas, all being well, but the contracts are going out to 2025. In this great new spirit of transparency, how much is going to be announced so that people can actually get connected well before 2025? We have had no transparency.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A crucial part of the future programme will be much greater communication with Members of Parliament, which is important up to a point, but also with the public. One of the most important things we can do is say to people, as he said, yes, the whole procurement will take several years, but there will be many shovels in the ground and many connections made well before the end of that period. We need to give people as much transparency as we possibly can, so that the entirely legitimate criticism that my hon. Friend made of the previous contract is not the case for the future contract.

It was right that CDS gave Gigaclear the opportunity to make things work, because it could speed things up, but we are where we are. It also important from a national perspective to say that Gigaclear has delivered in large swathes of the country: in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Essex, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. There are many problems, given the situation we are in today, but part of this is that we cannot lay them all at the door of any one entity.

On the new procurement, while some may think it easier to award the contracts to a larger supplier, the fair and open process across six lots was intended to promote speed and competition. When my hon. Friend gets his Christmas present, I hope he will be able to greet that, and we will give him some of the transparency that we have talked about.

I thank CDS for working with DCMS as closely as it has. That is why we have got to the position of doing six procurements in ten months or thereabouts, taking the people of Devon and Somerset to a significantly better place. The overall delivery, in stages between 2021 and 2024, and 2024 and 2025, is the right approach but it needs to be as transparent as possible, and should go as fast as possible. It should be communicated as quickly as possible. I have made that point to DCMS and CDS because, once awarded, these new contracts will deliver the balance of the connectivity that should have been delivered by Gigaclear. It is worth remembering the UK Government target of 95% for superfast coverage. The latest figures in my hon. Friend’s constituency show that 84.35% of his constituents have superfast connectivity —slightly up from the figures that he has given. The bad news is that the other two constituencies that he mentioned have gone up slightly faster. Tiverton and Homerton now has the lowest connectivity in Devon and Somerset, and I know that he is not going to let up until that is at a significantly higher level. We will pick up the superfast connections with these remaining procurements, we will be more transparent and we will go as fast as we possibly can.

It is also important to talk about the forthcoming UK gigabit programme that my hon. Friend mentioned and be absolutely clear that this remains a £5 billion programme with a 100% target. The judgment of industry and the Government is that the initial phasing of the spending reflects the maximum that can be delivered in the period up to 2025, but we will continue to work with industry so that if we can go any faster at all, then we will. If we can exceed that 85%, then we will. It is not an 85% maximum—it is a 100% ambition and we will go as far and as fast as we can.

My hon. Friend Selaine Saxby mentioned vouchers. They will be a key part, but not the only part by any means, of that future procurement, because it is horses for courses, as we know. Some communities are able to work together, but in some areas that is simply not the right approach. A host of different approaches will inform how we spend that £5 billion because that is how we will make it go as fast as possible and how, with an eye on value for money, we will manage to make sure that we spend it as quickly as possible. I know what matters to hon. Members in the Chamber is getting those connections done as quickly as possible. In the period to 2025, we will focus that funding, wherever possible, on premises that do not have access to superfast broadband. That means that the focus will be disproportionally on constituencies such as Somerton and Frome, and Tiverton and Homerton, where an 80-something per cent. of people have it. I obviously cannot make promises about any individual connection, although I am glad that my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall has recently been upgraded and I have hopes for my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, but it is important that the Government are clear that we will focus the £5 billion gigabit programme on getting as many people connected as possible. We will focus on those who need it most, and we will continue to work with the industry to refine the programme and maximise coverage.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for the good-natured way in which he is addressing our concerns, but I want to ask him about the commitment to universal gigabit broadband. Does it remain, and if so when will it be achieved?

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I said, we think we will get to 85% or thereabouts by 2025. We will go as fast as we possibly can and we will get to 100% as quickly as we possibly can. I know the hon. Lady wants me to put a date on that, but the point is that we will go as fast as we possibly can. We will talk more about what the phasing looks like as we talk more about the gigabit programme. We will release some details this side of Christmas and some more in the new year. If the hon. Lady will be slightly patient, we will be able to release some more details. One of the key factors for the gigabit programme has to be providing people with transparency about what happens when.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton for securing this debate. It is a hugely important issue for everyone across Devon and Somerset. I understand and share the frustration. I would be very happy to have another one of these debates, but I really hope we will not need one.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 5:26 pm, 2nd December 2020

I thank my hon. Friend David Warburton for his contribution to the debate. I like the way he managed to get roads and rail into a broadband debate—excellent. As my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Simon Jupp, went through all his villages, he stole one of mine. Feniton belongs to me—will he take his troops away? He made a very good point about how we need to get everybody connected. I thank my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall very much for his contribution. He was able to talk about gin distillers, farmers and fisherman all in the same breath—excellent. My hon. Friend Selaine Saxby said that she has less connection than me, but the Minister told me that I have the worst in Devon, so that should definitely cheer me up.

At the end of the day, this is very much about connecting our constituents. I made the point that it does not matter who does it or how we do it, but they must be connected. Over the years, I have been concerned about Openreach and BT and their monopolies, but they are training 5,000 engineers a year. They are the big players out there, so we have to make sure we use them with the outside-in programme and the voucher scheme. There has been a history of antagonism between Connecting Devon and Somerset and Openreach, and I do not want that to hold back the delivery of broadband. This is not only about our businesses; we talked about children’s education and the health service—most doctors’ surgeries are now being done online because of the pandemic. There is lots of serious stuff that we need to sort out.

I do not apologise for being very forthright because I think it was necessary, but I accept what the Minister said. We really need to do better. The last comment that I will make, Ms Fovargue, is that if you think this is bad, if I have to come back a second time it may be even worse.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the rollout of broadband in Devon and Somerset.

Sitting adjourned.