Project Gigabit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:00 am, 21st September 2021

My hon. Friend knows all about remote and rural communities, which make us in Cumbria look bijou, concentrated and urban by comparison. Yet, obviously, the challenges we face are very similar. Yes, understanding that the most difficult-to-reach parts of our country broadband-wise are the ones where we should start, rather than the ones we fill in after the fact, is something that we have pressed successive Governments to take seriously. B4RN tackles that.

The great shame is that the Government’s decision to end the voucher scheme in just three days’ time, while the procurement process takes place, will basically turn Project Gigabit into “Project Pull the Plug” for many of our towns and villages. Rather than allowing B4RN to carry on connecting our communities, the Government will instead allow big multinational companies with a track record so far of failing to meet rural need in Cumbria with a free shot at connecting properties in our communities. The difference between them and B4RN, however, is that they will not connect 100% of the properties. The Government will say that they are only obliged to connect 80% of properties—which they could probably have connected commercially anyway, but have not. We all know where the other 20% will be, do we not? They will be the most rural, the most remote. The communities that B4RN offered hope to will now be victims of “Project Pull the Plug”.

Successful community providers such as B4RN have pulled people together, strengthening communities in the process as volunteers literally go shoulder to shoulder to dig trenches and to connect homes and businesses. Personally, it was a real privilege for me to join residents digging in Old Hutton and to build lasting friendships in the process. Landowners large and small had waived payment, because they know that B4RN is not for profit and that the beneficiaries are their local neighbours. Communities such as Old Hutton, once the least connected place in Cumbria—I tell you, Dame Angela, that is saying something—now have world-class connections, thanks to B4RN and to Ministers in the past who listened.

Today’s debate will give us an insight, if the Minister will forgive me for saying so, into whether she will be one who listens. Her predecessor was a very nice man, but on this he did not listen. He visited Mallerstang in the constituency of Dr Hudson and met Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, who explained why removing the voucher scheme would kill off so many schemes that could connect rural communities in Cumbria. The Minister came, got his photograph and must have left behind everything he was told—or, he let it in one ear and let it slip out the other ear on the train ride back south.

The Government’s plan for rural broadband bears all the hallmarks of one of those great bright ideas dreamt up in Whitehall—a bright idea that, in reality, does inexcusable damage to rural communities, all the more inexcusable because so many of us have explained patiently and in detail why that is so. However, it does not need to be that way, and the Minister has the power to fix it today. If communities where B4RN is demonstrably engaged and actively planning are moved into the deferred procurement scope, and if voucher application remains open for those communities during the procurement process, B4RN will be able to continue to help level up remote rural communities through the delivery of future-proof fibre-optic infrastructure.

Our rural communities are under enormous pressure. The Government’s failure to restrict second home ownership and continuing to permit innocent tenants to be evicted so that landlords may quadruple their income through holiday lets mean that the very survival of many of our villages is at stake. Access to fast broadband is one way to ensure that local families can afford to remain in our area and to make a living—to run their businesses, to maintain a foothold in Cumbria, and to be able to stay there and raise their children there, keeping schools open and communities alive. For the Government to pull the plug in that way would be either cruel or foolish, or both. They may no longer pretend that that will be an unintended consequence of their plans, because we have shown them clearly what the consequences are.

Even if we believe the Government when they say that the voucher scheme might be replaced in a year or so, that will be too late, because all that might be left to connect will be the 20% of properties that BT and co chose to ignore. The voucher scheme will be of little use then, because B4RN depends on pooling funding from the vouchers of all the community in order to connect all the community. By securing the business of the towns and villages, it builds up the money to connect the homes, farms and hamlets that are most rural and otherwise financially unviable. The Government’s procurement plan, which abandoned the hardest-to-connect 20%, will be the death of the B4RN business model. When the Government designed the plan, they did not know that—fair enough—but now they do and they have no excuse. The Conservatives will be killing off rural broadband in Cumbria. They know that, and today we will find out whether they care.

The Minister will need to look these communities in the eye, especially those that the Government choose to dump, and explain why she has chosen to pull the plug. Hot off the press today I can reveal the communities that the Conservative Government have chosen to pull the plug on: Kirkwhelpington, Great Salkeld, Storth, Woodburn, Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Nateby, Lazonby, Melmerby, Brough Sowerby, Crosthwaite, Hugill, Far Sawrey, Kirkby Ireleth, Hawskhead and Claife, half of Skelwith Bridge, Ackenthwaite, Whassett, Broughton-in-Furness, the Rusland valley, Lowick, Great Langdale, Skelton, and 548 properties in the village of Burneside. There is a list of other communities still hugely at risk because of Project Gigabit’s procurement plan, but B4RN will do everything it can to deliver within a year. I make the decision on the hoof to not name them because it would take acres of time and I do not want to blight them. There is a massive chance that they will succeed because B4RN will do everything it can, despite all the odds stacked against it.

Every one of the communities that I have listed will rightly feel that they have had the rug pulled from under them by the Government. Those communities were pulling together, voluntarily giving up their time and energy, and working with a tried and tested B4RN model to deliver to some of the most remote parts of our country. Getting connected is a matter of life and death for some of those communities. It is about the ability to learn, trade and communicate. It is the difference between communities thriving and being sustainable and being cut off and therefore unsustainable.