Broadband Rollout: Devon and Somerset

Part of the debate – 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?