Broadband Rollout: Devon and Somerset

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:11 pm on 2nd December 2020.

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

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.