Project Gigabit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:15 am on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 11:15 am, 21st September 2021

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate Tim Farron on securing the debate. We are neighbouring MPs and we share very many similar issues, so I very much welcome this debate. What I do not welcome, however, is the hon. Member and his party colleagues starting to put out literature in my constituency, including pieces and photos by him. May I remind him that we share the same issues, but we do not share the same constituency?

Rural connectivity is a huge issue for Penrith and The Border and for rural Cumbria, and it has been brought into sharp relief during the pandemic. 4G coverage in the north-west is around 73%; that needs to be improved. My constituency of Penrith and The Border has some of the hardest-to-reach areas in the whole United Kingdom; 11.6% of households have a speed of less than 10 megabits per second.

I very much welcome the fact that the Government are prioritising Cumbria in the roll-out of the gigabit programme and with the shared rural network. The £5 billion of funding is welcome for the United Kingdom, and I will keep banging the drum for Cumbria to be at the front of the queue for that. The £5 billion shared rural network is very important. We know that sometimes the fibre will not get to every household, so we need to extend 4G coverage to get to some of the hardest-to-reach areas, and I welcome the fact that that is happening in Cumbria as well. The forecast of 4G coverage of 73% will go to 88% with the shared rural network, which I welcome. I also welcome joint funding initiatives across Government through the Borderlands programme, which has earmarked approximately £28 million for the 4-gigabit programme.

I had the great pleasure of welcoming—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to this—the previous Digital Minister to my constituency, to Mallerstang near Kirkby Stephen, to see the great work of B4RN in connecting households. We had the pleasure of actually connecting up one of the households ourselves.

I am working closely with parish councils, service providers such as B4RN, BDUK—Building Digital UK—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Connecting Cumbria. I believe that we need to work together to secure these deliveries for our hard-to-reach communities. I very much recognise the anxiety that communities are feeling about this procurement process and the voucher scheme now. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about that.

I make a plea to the new Minister not to let this procurement exercise cause anxiety for these communities, but to allow the people who have worked closely with providers such as B4RN to keep the exercise going so that we have continuity and so that these community projects can actually be delivered. There are many, many schemes across Cumbria that are almost over the halfway line, and they need just a bit of extra time and a bit of Government support, so I make the plea to allow the voucher application system to remain open during the procurement process.

It is important that we allow communities to continue to work with providers such as B4RN so that some communities can be moved to the deferred procurement scope, and then we will not pause the process for these households and communities that are desperate to get connected. We can then stop the mad dash to get over the halfway line, and give communities and providers time to get people connected. I make a plea also that, after the procurement process, the providers work together. There is plenty of rural United Kingdom and rural Cumbria to go around. We want people to work together sensibly so that households are not left out, so I make a plea for everyone to work together.

I also make a plea to Opposition politicians: let us all work together; let us not play political football with this. We can work together—central Government, local government and communities pulling together. We all want the same thing: we all want better broadband and better connectivity. We have much more chance if we all work together, with the Government, to secure that aim.