Project Gigabit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:19 am on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State 11:19 am, 21st September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank Tim Farron for securing this very important debate and for making what I thought was a compelling speech. I wish today to assure him, for the very same reason: we want to do the right thing for his constituents and for all residents and business owners in rural and hard-to-reach areas. We want to make sure that they are not left high and dry in the nationwide gigabit upgrade.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted that access to high-speed broadband is important for schooling, for businesses and for building communities in more rural areas, and we all understand this from the very difficult past 18 months. I know that that determination is shared by my hon. Friend Dr Hudson and other colleagues in the Chamber today, including those from the highlands. The Prime Minister promised to end the spinning wheel of doom and he keenly follows the progress we are making to connect the country to lightning fast, reliable gigabit broadband. I will set out some of the progress we have made before I turn to the situation in Cumbria.

Working with Ofcom, we have given the commercial market a long-term framework that supports investment in gigabit broadband. We have reduced the barriers to roll-out, alongside further legislation that will help even more with issues such as wayleaves where we can get the infrastructure laid. We have also introduced active incentives for financial investment. As a result, our plan is working and gigabit-capable broadband is rolling out rapidly. Since January 2019, the UK’s gigabit-capable coverage has increased from 5.8% to nearly 50%, and that is expected to rise to 60% by the end of December. In addition, the Government and major providers’ joint investment of more than £1 billion is filling those gaps in rural 4G coverage.

There is a lot more diversity now in the broadband sector. I appreciate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale’s comments about larger providers, such as Openreach, but our local full fibre networks and rural gigabit connectivity programmes have awarded contracts to multiple operators, many of them smaller providers such as Gigaclear, Airband, Fibrus, Axiom, Quickline, Truespeed, Full Fibre and Wessex Internet. Our gigabit broadband voucher scheme has suppliers actively providing connections to communities in rural areas in every part of the UK.

However, we have to accept—as we do—that the market will not go everywhere, which is why we are backing Project Gigabit with £5 billion so that hard-to-reach communities are not left out. That is how we want to level up and ensure that our rural communities have the same chances and opportunities as our urban towns and cities. We are adding to the half a million rural homes and businesses already covered by Project Gigabit, thanks to our support. Through Project Gigabit, the Government are going to provide support to ensure coverage is available to the final 20% of premises that the market will not reach. That is a considerable undertaking that is going to involve everybody, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said. It is very important that we work together on that.

As part of Project Gigabit, we are investing more money—up to £210 million over the next three years—in gigabit vouchers. That builds on the success of the previous voucher programme that began in May 2019, which has subsidised the cost to connect more than 88,000 homes and businesses to gigabit-capable broadband so far. Our nationwide task is a lot larger, and if we are going to reach every home and business, the Government have to subsidise broadband networks to around 5 million premises. We have already made great strides with that objective, but we still have the most challenging parts of our four nations to reach. If we are going to get that done quickly, the lion’s share of the work has to be done through Government procurement contracts, working with both local and regional suppliers. I am very pleased to say that Cumbria is scheduled to be the first area to go into the procurement process. Provided that suppliers confirm the proposed project is viable, the procurement will get under way within the next few weeks.

While residents and businesses in Cumbria will be the first to benefit from our programme, it means the county is also at the forefront of our learning and understanding. Far from being cloth-eared, as I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has stated in his local paper, I want to reassure him that we are listening hard to people’s concerns and we continue to be open minded about the best approach. I hope this debate is the opening of that conversation, certainly with me in my new role.

My officials have met B4RN several times and examined each project it has put forward in a lot of detail. I am pleased that the chief executive is here today and, in fact, I understand that my officials are going to meet him later today. Not only that; my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend Matt Warman, visited Cumbria last month and met communities in the midst of the broadband build. He also met B4RN and listened to the concerns, and I shall be happy to keep that conversation going.

I cannot stress enough how much the Department admires and applauds B4RN in its unique community-minded approach. As a network provider, it is almost unique in the UK. We do not want to dampen that enthusiasm or that business model. I have come from a position in the Cabinet Office where we were looking at how to transform the UK’s procurement regime now that we have left the European Union. One of our key drivers is looking to get more social value into the money the Government spend, as well as diversifying supply chains and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to get involved. I certainly do not want to crowd people out.

Residents involved in every one of B4RN’s projects tirelessly work to drum up support and interest and to persuade landowners to grant permissions to cross their land and so on. That is seriously impressive community work. I welcome that the vouchers have been used to provide coverage to 3,500 premises in Cumbria. I hope that that number will continue to grow, but our task—let us be honest here—is to help in the region of 60,000 premises, so the procurement approach has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to the Project Gigabit programme.