Broadband Rollout: Devon and Somerset

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 2nd December 2020.

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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.