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.